Lexus’ NX Top Model

2014 Lexus NX300h AWD review

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The Japanese have always had a knack for doing things that have been done many times over but in their own special and unique way. From the first Sony Walkman to robotics, the Japanese aren’t afraid to venture out with whacky ideas. Who would’ve though a sport where two fat men charge at each other could be so entertaining and exhilarating? And queueing for a train is one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had in my life. Everyone stands and waits accordingly for a train that’s always on time.

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I love the way the Japanese do things. It’s always so efficient, well executed, and every now and then a bit mad. Take Lexus’ new design language as an example of this. You have to applaud the balls of Lexus’ design team for their current cars. The bold, edgy, and aggressive look is a far cry from Lexus’ of old and was sure to split opinion. That was the point. It was a risk to lure new customers in to the brand but also to keep the current fan base coming back for more. While I can’t speak for all Lexus owners, I can safely say I’m one of the converted. I absolute adore this design language. In my opinion the three best looking sedans on sale at the moment are the Maserati Ghibli, Aston Martin Rapide, and the Lexus IS F-Sport.

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It’s such a wild departure from what Lexus used to be 20, or even 10 years ago and a two-finger salute to the conservative Germans. That’s probably what I admire most about this design language. The moment you see one of the new Lexus on the road you immediately know what it is. Which is funny as you can’t really say that about the Germans these days. Finding the difference between an Audi, BMW, VW, or Mercedes is as easy as finding the difference between German towns. In a way that’s quite ironic as Lexus was always thought of unashamedly copying the Germans but now it seems they’ve found their identity whereas the Germans are losing theirs.

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That brings me on to the all-new Lexus NX. And I do mean all-new. This is one of the rare instances where I get to sample an all-new car and not a follow up to a previous model. The NX is Lexus’ first foray into this segment. Previously the least expensive way of Lexus SUV ownership was via the RX which competes in the segment above. But Lexus has seen how this end of the market has grown and have waded into battle against the likes of the BMW X3, Audi Q5, Porsche Macan, Volvo XC60, and Range Rover Evoque. Mercedes’ GLK isn’t available in right-hand drive and the GLC replacement is still a year or so away. So the NX is in the company of some very well established and very German rivals, with the exception of the Swedish XC60 and British Evoque.

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With the Evoque and arguably the Macan aside, most of the cars in this segment are conservatively designed and look quite similar to one another. That’s where the NX comes in with its trump card – its bold styling. Where the others look like they’ve been formed out of a slab of granite, the Lexus looks like it’s actually been styled. Some call it fussy, I say someone has taken the time to put some effort into making it stand out from the crowd. Beautiful isn’t a word I’d use to describe it but there’s something about it that really appeals to me. It’s a great combination of aggressive looks, athletic details, and just an all round cool looking thing. I’m not alone on this, driving around Central Wellington this thing turns more heads than an anti-government protest. One chap even said it looked like a concept car that’s driven straight from a motor show.

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This test car is equipped with the F-Sport pack and brings with it more aggressive styling. The F-Sport NX probably has the biggest spindle grille of any Lexus and that’s the first thing you notice as you see it from the front. That and those futuristic headlights. Three LEDs are housed in each headlight and give a moonlight-like effect as they illuminate the road at night. As with the IS and RC, the daytime running lights are separated from the headlights. They’re the same exaggerated ‘L’ shape and I still maintain they’re one of the better looking DRL designs. One of my favourite design details is the pointy bit of the front bumper that connects the DRLs to the fog lights.

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Round the side the NX has a similar profile the RX, albeit slightly shorter. There’s so much about this car’s exterior styling I like and could talk about. The diamond-like look of the sills to the squared off design above the rear wheel arches. I even like the shape of the windows purely because they’re not German-like. The rear is more often than not the part of a car’s design that’s forgotten. Many rear-ends look like an afterthought. Not so in the case of the NX where the wild creased, edges, and ‘L’ theme continues. The taillights aren’t as extreme as the those on the IS but they do have the same L graphics and I like those it sort of cuts through the lighting cluster.

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Suffice to say I’m a fan of the exterior, and it’s the same story inside. The moment you open the door you instantly know this is a quality car. At night the door handles illuminate and they also have the same slide-to-lock function as the IS. Climb inside into one of the most welcoming seats in any car, the door closes with a nice reassuring thump. Unlike its rivals that have go for a minimalist interior with touchscreens and rotary dials to control everything, Lexus has chosen to go down the shock-and-awe route. It’s not a bad thing in particular, it’s just a bit overwhelming at first. Luckily you get used to where everything is and it all become second nature. Even if I hadn’t driven an IS350 prior to the NX I still think I would’ve found where everything was blindfolded. But then if I were blind folded I wouldn’t be able to appreciate the design of the dash.

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Layers, layers, and more layers. That’s probably the best way to describe the styling of the dashboard. The great philosophical figure that is Shrek once said “Ogres are like onions, they have layers”. Well perhaps if Shrek had been familiar with a Lexus NX he would’ve said Orgres are like the dashboard of a Lexus NX. You have top dash but which goes down to a stand-alone screen (possibly the most German looking thing of the NX). From there the centre console extends out with the air condition vents, analogue clock, and climate control buttons. It then goes back in where the CD autochanger and media buttons are. Then it slopes outwards for the driving mode controls, gearstick, and cupholders on the transmission tunnel. You don’t get this kind of complexity from its rivals that’s for sure. It may sound overly complex but it’s surprisingly comfortable and it means you’re never bored sitting inside the NX.

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There are two kinds of interiors; one where you sit in it and are comfortable or one where you sit in it and it makes you feel special. The NX’s falls under the latter. Being inside the NX is a fantastic experience. From the design to the sheer quality of everything you touch, it never stopped making me feel like I was in something a bit different. Lexus, whether you like them or not, you can’t argue that they know how make cars of top-class quality. First the materials. If it’s not trimmed in soft leather, it’s soft touch materials. It’s as if the designers scoured the world in search of the most worthy materials to use in here. Why can’t more manufacturers take the time and effort to make cars as well as Lexus? All the controls; the stalks, buttons, and even the touchpad have an expensive feel to them. They’re amazingly damped. Sure there’s a lot of buttons but pushing them is so satisfying I don’t even care.

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It’s all about the small details. Take how the cupholders grip your drink so no matter the size you’ll never arrive with a wet crotch. Or the fact that everything that opens always closes in the softest and quietest manner. Even something as ordinary as turning on the interior lights becomes an event. You don’t simply push them but rather swiping them with your fingers to turn them on and off. Brilliant. Oh and I mustn’t forget to mention the random handheld mirror found on the centre console. I have no idea what purpose that serves other than being a fantastic selling point to soccer mums. Again, it’s just one of those things where Lexus do things a bit differently to its main rivals. It’s the same with the tech on board too. Oooh there’s a lot of tech on board. The NX is the first car to come with a wireless charging tray for your Qi compatible smartphone. Unfortunately my iPhone 5 wasn’t compatible. I tried using an HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 but with no success either. I later found out you need a special case in order for it to work. Disappointed I didn’t get to use but it’s a great idea and feature. It also means less cables and somewhere to keep your phone hidden.

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Where Audi, BMW, and Mercedes have central infotainment system controlled via rotary dial and/or touchpad, the Lexus only use a touchpad. It replaces the old mouse-like controller is a vast improvement in terms of usability and reducing driver distraction. Using it is as easy to use as a touchpad on a laptop. Swiping your finger up, down, and across to get around the various menus and then pressing down to select. There are quick jump buttons located above the touchpad for easier access. Home directs you to a split screen showing energy information and audio. Menu displays Climate, Nav, Media, Radio, Lexus Enform, Info, Vehicle settings, etc. It’s very intuitive to use and doesn’t require your eyes to stray from the road ahead too often once you’ve gotten used to it. However, I don’t think it’s any better or worse than what the Germans use. Just a nice change though.

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The screen is brilliant. It’s wide and has great resolution. The information displayed is just enough and isn’t crammed in or crowded. Things are easy to read thanks to simple fonts and good sizing. The sat-nav in particular is great and easy to use. Inputing destinations can literally be done in a matter of seconds. But what I want to talk about is the reversing camera. It’s not the clearest in the world but the 360° view camera is great. What’s even better is you can select different angles to from the top view, side view, and rear view. That not only makes parking easy but it also feels like you’re directing a film. Equally cool is the semi-virtual instrument display. It’s not quite as extreme as the one on the Lexus IS, or LFA for that matter, but it’s still a pretty cool touch. The speedo on the right stays the same, however the dial on the left changes depending on the drive mode you’ve selected. In EV or Normal mode the left dial is a Charge, Eco, Power dial and in Sport or Sport+ it’s a rev counter.

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Getting comfy inside is easy, the adjustable electric front seats provides drivers of different shapes and sizes a driving position that’ll be comfortable for them. The optional F-Sport seats are a particular highlight of the interior. They’re some of the most comfortable and supportive seats I’ve ever come across. They offer the perfect balance of being plush and luxurious while hugging you tight and keeping you upright as you drive around twisty corners. In fact I’d go as far as to say they’re some of the best in the business. And the leather is of such great quality too. Smelling and feeling the leather is an experience in itself. Of course, this being a Lexus, the seats are heated and cooled. I must say, they work very well and have almost immediate reactions.

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The rear seats are also pretty damn comfortable. Like others in this class they recline back but what makes them even better is the way you just sort of fall into a daze. They welcome you like your bed after a day’s work. To further enhance the business class feel there’s literally acres of legroom. It’s bettered by a missing intrusive transmission tunnel so even the middle occupant can be comfortable. The reason for the lack of a transmission tunnel is because the rear axle is powered by electric motors. This affects boot space a bit, the NX300h having a 475L capacity whereas the electric motor-less NX200t has 500L.

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Good thing the interior is so stylish and nice to be in because the NX comes with so much equipment as standard. There’s actually so much kit fitted it’d take me all of eternity to list them all. But some the highlights are the 14 speaker Mark Levinson sound system. No idea who Mark Levinson is but he can make some damn good speakers. Then there’s all the tech on board as mentioned before such as a heads up display, Qi wireless charger, and electrically operated seats trimmed in the finest leather. The NX300h also comes with keyless entry and go (with slide to lock door handles, oh and they illuminate at night too), an electric tailgate, and front and rear parking sensors with all round cameras. The amount of safety kit is befitting of a car scoring 5 stars in the EuroNCAP crash tests. There’s adaptive radar cruise control, lane keep assist, blind spot assit, rear cross traffic alert, pre-crash brake assist, and all the other safety acronyms.

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The NX will be available with two models. The NX200t is Lexus’ first turbocharged petrol engine since the 1990s and it’s an engine that will find its way to other Lexus models. That won’t be available in NZ until early next year. For the moment only the NX300h petrol-hybrid is available. There won’t be a diesel version so as far as economy goes this is the only choice. Lexus claims an average fuel economy of 5.4L/100km. I got around 7.7L/100km but if you’re careful then you could get close to the claimed fuel figure. Hybrids tend to be easier to get close to the manufacturer’s claimed figures than other cars. Utilising a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine and an electric motor, the NX300h has a combined output of 197bhp and 210NM of torque. Far from being the sportiest of SUVs, it goes from 0-100 km/h in 9 seconds. It feels it. It’s aggressive and sporty demeanour on the outside may suggest a take-it-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck beast but in reality it’s from being a Porsche Macan rival.

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Let’s be honest though, most buyers of these sorts of cars aren’t wanting hot hatch levels of driving involvement. Approach the NX with this in mind and you won’t be disappointed. Otherwise you might find the F-Sport pack is writing cheques the drivetrain can’t pay. It’s not hideously slow, there are moments where the instant torque from the electric motors gets the NX going but it just doesn’t feel like it wants to be going around in a rush. Rather, it’s as if it’d rather cruise and enjoy the journey to your destination rather than get there in the fastest time. That makes it different to the Germans you see. In those cars you feel like you need to drive as if every road you’re on is an autobahn. In the Lexus you’re more relaxed, you’re heart doesn’t beat as fast and you can bask in the knowledge that you can put it in EV mode and drive around in a $100k SUV emitting zero emissions. Shove that up your pipe and smoke it Greenpeace!

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As hybrids go though, the NX is one of the best I’ve driven. Actually scratch that, it is the best I’ve driven. Toyota and Lexus know a thing or two about them, given they invented the damn things. The default setting for the NX after starting it up is it’ll be powered by the electric motors alone. You can select it to run purely in EV mode but only up to speeds of 40 km/h and given you’re not too heavy with your right foot. I do enjoy the idea of driving around the city in pure silence and using no fuel. The batteries for the electric motors recharge as you drive along and also recuperate energy from braking and downhill driving. With this, the NX300h makes a lot of sense if you primarily do urban driving. And let’s not kid ourselves here, that’s where these types of cars spend most of their time. Should you require extra oomph the petrol engine kicks in with the smoothest transition of any hybrid I’ve experienced. It’s a great powertrain and there’s more than enough grunt to suit city and motorway driving. It’s only on twisty hill roads does the idea of an NX200t become slightly more tempting.

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Letting its sporty side down is the CVT auto. Again, in town or on the motorway it’s perfectly fine. I couldn’t fault it. Other reviewers have complained about a ‘droning’ noise from the CVT. I couldn’t pick up on the noise. The car I reviewed last week, now that thing droned like there was no tomorrow so compared to that the refined Lexus was a huge improvement. No, it’s not the drone (or lack of it) that was the problem bur rather it couldn’t get the right ‘gears’ I wanted. Sure, a CVT doesn’t have traditional gears but even in Sports mode and via the paddles it didn’t have the same responsiveness as the sportier Macan. That said, in town or on motorways the CVT works like a charm seamlessly shifting gears to get the most out of the economical hybrid powertrain.

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Handling-wise the NX isn’t all that brilliant either. The light steering (if a bit lifeless) and tight turning circle make it great in the city and car parks but it doesn’t make for an all too sporty drive. This is possibly where Lexus could learn a thing or two from the Germans. Around corners the NX does lean a bit, but not too much that it’s uncomfortable. It’s just something expected for a car of this type. However, I was surprised at the amount of lean it had as it was sitting on F-Sport suspension which were a tad firm. Personally I don’t mind a firm ride as long as the seats are comfortable like they are in the NX. However, I could imagine a few people finding it edging a bit on the firm side for their liking. Simple solution to this is to just get the standard NX or the comfort-biased Limited.

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So we’ve established it’s no back road blaster but as a cruiser it’s hard to beat. NVH levels are virtually non-existent. The near silent hybrid powertrain continues even as you get to motorway speeds. There is slight wind and road noise but barely much to make it a nuisance on long distance driving. The driver’s seats, as mentioned before, are very comfortable and supportive. At no point did my back or bum ache at all. Visibility is good too, the wing mirrors in particular are the perfect size for a car of this size. The C-pillar is a bit intrusive by the array of driver aids negate this. The active driver aids also make motorway driving just that bit easier. Active driver assistance systems are all standard fit features that help make life for the driver all the more comfortable. I’d see no problem commuting each day in this and with a near 800km range from a full tank you wouldn’t need to visit petrol stations much either.

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That’s the thing though, other rivals are available with diesel engines which are better for long distance driving. An Audi Q5 TDI for example offers better range on a tank, while a petrol powered Macan has a more spirited drive thanks to instant reflexes. Placing the NX in the market is not quite as simple as it sounds. Its size, price, and spec put it on par with the likes of the upcoming Land Rover Discovery Sport, BMW X3, Range Rover Evoque, Porsche Macan, Audi Q5, and in other markets, the Mercedes GLK. However, the NX also has to fend off other posh crossovers in the segment below such as the Audi Q3, BMW X1, and Mercedes GLA. Quite a hard task for Lexus’ first attempt at cracking the small premium SUV segment.

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The NX is the classic case of all show and little go. It looks great, feels great, and is actually pretty great overall. But it’s not the sporty SUV its pointy and edgy styling would have you think. The hybrid powertrain is good for driving around in the city and the EV mode gives you a few kilometres of guilt-free driving, however for the most smiles a Porsche Macan has it licked. What it does offer is something different. It does the whole posh SUV thing with its own Japanese style. You wouldn’t buy it for the way it excites, you wouldn’t buy it for the way it handles, and you might not even buy it for the economy. What you might buy it for though is the way it makes you feel. The comfort, the luxury, and the quality all come together in perfect harmony to make you feel special. It’s not like the Germans which get on with their job efficiently, the NX’s layered innards never look conservative. Then there’s the way this looks, which is why I’d get one. Like the interior it’s nothing like anything else in its class. Then again, isn’t that the point of these types of cars? They’re a status symbol and image is everything. Well other SUVs don’t turn quite as much heads as this one does.

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Verdict: 8.5/10
Pros: Styling, interior, quality, refinement, comfort, equipment, tech, value, EV mode, something different.
Cons: Not all that sporty, smaller than average boot, .
Lexus’ NX is a worthwhile option to consider simply because of the way it does something traditionally German with all the wackiness of a Japanese anime convention. It has potential to very well be Lexus’ best selling model.

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Specifications:
Engine: 2494cc four-cylinder petrol, electric motor
Power: 197bhp, 145kW
Torque: 210NM petrol
0-100 km/h: 9.2 seconds
Top Speed: 180 km/h
Transmission: CVT automatic
Fuel Economy: 5.7L/100km
C02 Emissions: 125g/km
Drive: Four-wheel
Weight: 1800kg
Width: 1845mm
Length: 4630mm
Height: 1645mm
Fuel Tank: 56L
Luggage Capacity: 475L

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Euro Not The Chosen One

2014 Honda Civic Euro 1.8 L-Spec review

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Some things in life are always constant. They’re always there whether regardless of anything else. Time will always go forward, the sun will always rise, and there’s nothing stronger than a stale muffin. And in the motoring world there’s always going to be a Honda Civic. Be it an old one that’s still running after a million kilometres on the clock or a brand spanking new one the Honda Civic is to the motoring world what a mother’s love is to nature – it’s something that’ll never go away. Over the years I’ve had the chance to have experience Civic-ism many times over. A few of my relatives have varying ages of Civics and I was able to see the Civic through its different generations when I visited the Honda Hall at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit. So it’s fair to say I’m quite familiar with the Civic. That is, the Asian/American spec Civic sedan. The Euro Civic hatch however is a different story.

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The Civic has been manufactured in the United Kingdom long before it ‘officially’ adopted the Euro badge but the first proper Euro Civic was launched in 2006. I remember when it was released it caused quite a stir thanks to its space-age styling. It looked like no Civic had ever looked before. This was Honda being bold in an attempt to find younger buyers. And it worked, the average age for Civic buyers in Europe dropped from 60 to 55. It was a shame we never got that model here in New Zealand because it could’ve changed the way most people perceive Honda cars and the Civic in particular. Sure, there were many grey imports around but it was only until the second-generation Euro Civic was launched did NZ officially get it. This was launched back in 2012 and at the time of its launch people were downsizing their cars post-global financial crisis. It was good timing for Honda but it never reached the same level of sales as rivals from Toyota, Hyundai, or Mazda. You do see a few driving around and they’re usually driven by more aged people. And that’s a shame because you can tell Honda has tried to make the styling appeal to younger buyers.

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To my eyes its predecessor, the first Euro Civc, definitely looked much cooler and more radical. Still, it’s a good effort and I’m a fan of its modern styling. It may not appeal to everyone but just be thankful it’s a move in the right directions compared to Civics of old which looked like a 4m slab of car. Up front you have the current Honda face which has been adopted by the new Jazz and upcoming HR-V (which coincidentally shares a platform with the Civic). The test car, which was painted in White Orchid Pearl paint, looked a bit more like a panda than Honda’s old F1 cars with that blacked out grille. Of course LED daytime runnings are a feature on a car made in 2014. Disappointingly there’s no projector HID headlights. Just old-fashioned Halogens which don’t do favours at making it look ‘premium’.

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Round the side the shape of the Euro Civic is pretty much the same as the car that went before. The wedge shape isn’t only cool but it’s aerodynamic too. Unlike its predecessors, there’s no 3-door version for this generation. Instead you have a ‘hidden’ rear door handle giving it a coupe-ish look from the side, similar to Alfas and the left side of the Hyundai Veloster I tested last week. Round the back is where it gets all futuristic. The alien-looking taillights are connected via rear-spoiler that goes through the rear windscreen. It does look cool and has a whiff of NSX/RX-7 about it but it does hamper rear visibility. It could’ve been executed better, or maybe Honda were going for the ‘masking tape through the middle of your TV screen’ effect.

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Driving the Civic was more enjoyable than I had expected. No it wasn’t what I would call sporty but it didn’t bore me to sleep either. Under its short bonnet is a 1.8-litre i-VTEC four-cylinder engine which produces 138bhp and 174NM of torque. That gets it from 0-100 km/h in 9.1 seconds, which is isn’t fast but it is just enough to get it going. Overtaking is less good, the low torque and the sluggish auto means you’ll need to set a week aside to overtake anything larger than a dog. The 5-speed auto is a traditional torque converter unit, which isn’t bad in itself. Changes are smooth and at least there’s manual control via paddle shifters but it does feel quite outdated. Perhaps an extra cog or two could might’ve done favours with its fuel economy too. Honda claims 6.6L/100km, I was averaging around 7.7L/100km mark. I mean, that’s quite respectable taking into account I don’t have the lightest right foot in the world but there’s a feeling that it could’ve been a lot closer. Part of the issue is the engine. I adore and respect Honda’s engines greatly but taking the Civic out of the city and into twisty and winding hill roads proved to be a challenge for the little engine. Like any VTEC you have to rev the guts out of it to get any power. Leaving it in Drive was no good as it’d always stay in the highest gear possible, which meant torque was unavailable.

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Putting it into ‘S’ didn’t help either as that just held the gears. That wouldn’t have been a problem if it made a decent noise. It just sounded a bit too droney for my liking. Luckily it’s only at its worst when pushed hard but that’s the problem as if you want to go uphill or want to perform an overtaking manoeuvre you have to have your foot planted down and drop down a couple of gears. You won’t be winning any drag races with the Civic but it does make up for this by being quite good at going around corners. The fact that this was designed and engineered in Europe shows in how it goes about with the task of cornering. There’s nice weight and feel to the steering. Yes it’s light, which is good for around town, but it also means it doesn’t wear you out if you find yourself on a road with many a corners.

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It has to be said, I did push the Civic quite hard but even so it didn’t misbehave. It kept going around corners without any issues such as understeer. All the controls are sharp, crisp, and responsive. Something you want when you’re driving on narrow roads with tight blind corners. Honda seems to get their throttle responses bang on perfect too. The amount of throttle you have in your head is exactly what you get as you push on the accelerator. I don’t know if the car can read minds or if it’s been calibrated perfectly, either way it’s pretty damn impressive. Some of the roads we went on were stunning. These are the sort of roads you’d expect to find in a movie or a Top Gear special. They were picturesque perfect and even though I was in a humble 138bhp Civic, I was having a blast. Suddenly, it all came together. The ride, the handling, and even the revvy engine managed to put a smile on my face around these roads. Sure something like a Volkswagen Golf GTI or MINI Cooper S would’ve been better but for a humdrum family hatch the Civic proved to a surprise.

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Okay, so it handles reasonably well for a family car and it isn’t as fast in a straight line as Usain Bolt. There’s a but coming and this is quite a major but, it rides superbly. I don’t mean it’s a soft, plush riding car like a Mercedes but rather it felt perfectly damped and sprung for our roads. It struck the ideal balance between firm and sporty with forgiving and absorbent. Yes, you felt bumps on the road, but the car never suffers from them. It just kept calm and carried on, that was the British in it showing off. This may sound ridiculous but it did remind me a lot of the MINI and Nissan Qashqai – both cars were also made in the UK. It’s also a very good motorway cruiser with decent levels of insulation keeping outside noise to a minimum. You don’t need to shout to other passengers inside to have a conversation, which isn’t something you can say about other Japanese cars. This got me thinking, UK roads are known to be not the smoothest in the world so the cars that come out of there have to have good rides but as most British drivers enjoy a bit of B-road action they have to handle well too. Japanese, German, and American roads tend to be smooth so they’re able to have hard riding cars. The Japanese have small roads so they want cars with light steering which isn’t always good for handling. The French and Italians however do have good steering but their cars are always either too bouncy to deal with cobbled roads or too hard.

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It seems then, that for NZ roads cars from the UK are best suited. Which makes the Euro Civic a worthy contender of being the ideal cars for Kiwi families. I can certainly see an appeal for it. It looks great, handles nicely, and has a ride that betters most if not all its rivals. Sure it isn’t as sporty as a Mazda3 but not everyone wants to drive like their pants are on fire. That’s not to say the Civic is dull, it just approaches things in a more mature and sensible way. Things such as storage spaces and build quality for example are put on top priority. If there’s one thing the Euro Civic does better than its rivals, it’s the incredible diversity in storage spaces. The attention to detail is so typically Honda. Take the glovebox which is lined in felt. Why? Because it’s nice, that’s why. The cupholders up front are placed nicely too, so you don’t accidentally knock your drink over. Under the central armrest is a deep cubby hole where you’ll find the USB, Aux, and 12V sockets as well as a little gap for cables. There’s also a place to keep your sunglasses.

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While the interior has many spaces for things, it can also carry people quite nicely too. Up front you have decent adjustment for the steering wheel and seats, which are trimmed in leather and have power lumbar supports. The power lumbar supports were great as you can adjust the side bolsters to fit your body type so the seats really do hug you nicely. Headroom and legroom were good too, as was front and side visibility. The short and sloped bonnet does make judging the where the front is quite tricky but at the same time it makes parking up against walls easy. Once you’ve figured out where the front stops. In the back, passengers are treated to acres of head and legroom. It may have a coupe-esque look from the outside but inside it’s clearly a family hatch, and a practical Honda one at that. Even the passenger sat on the middle seat can be quite comfortable as there’s no intrusive transmission tunnel taking up space. Of course if you want want to carry people in the back the rear seats can be folded in two different ways. You can life the base of the seats up to have essentially two boots making the second row of seats a barrier. It’s ideal for carrying pot plants or something similar. The boot itself is a generous size at 487L which is around 100L larger than its rivals. It can be further extended by folding the rear seats down to a massive 1210L. That’s the magic of Honda’s Magic Seats.

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But it’s not all sensible practicality inside the Euro Civic though, oh no. For a start the build quality is simply fantastic. The soft touch materials and the way everything feels and sounds is top notch. The door closes with a reassuring thump, the buttons are nice to touch and are well damped, and it just feels like a quality product inside. I particularly like the sci-fi style instrument cluster and central display screen that wraparounds the dash and is angled towards the driver. It’s striking and nice to look at, but not distracting at all. However, I did have a couple of niggles with some of the interior features. I understand this is an everyday car that’s priced at everyday prices but why did Honda choose to put such a dated and chunky volume dial slap bang in the middle of the dash. It sticks out like a pimple on a Terminator and ruins the simple flowing design of the dash. Rivals such as the Golf and Mazda3 that have touchscreens are considerably easier to use and make the interior look much cleaner. The Mazda’s system can also be controlled via rotary dial too. The steering wheel mounted cruise control buttons were confusing too. Usually I can jump into a new car and turn on the cruise control on the first go but not in the Euro Civic. No, I could work the speed limiter but I could not set it to cruise. Which wasn’t ideal while I’m doing 100 km/h on a motorway.

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As it’s a Honda you get a lot of kit as standard. The Euro Civic L comes with dual zone climate control, reversing camera, a very nice sounding premium sound system, USB/Aux connectivity, Bluetooth audio streaming and phone connectivity, auto headlights, auto wipers, leather trimmed seats, keyless entry and go, privacy glass, and 17-inch alloy wheels. That’s on top of the long list of standard features you get with the standard Euro Civic S spec. The Euro Civic range starts from $29,990 with the S Manaul and goes all the way up to $46,800 for the L Mugen with 18-inch wheels. That’s a ludicrous amount of money for a car that’s not worth that much. $46,800 puts it on par with a top-of-the-line SP25 Limited Mazda3 or a bog-standard Mercedes-Benz A-Class. Both of which I’d rather have over the Euro Civic. The test car was the L spec which starts from a more reasonable $38,900. That’s probably the most I’d spend on one if I were in the market to buy one. But I’m not and even if I was I wouldn’t buy a Euro Civic with my own money for one reason, or rather a couple.

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The family hatch segment is one of the most competitive on the market today. For every contender there’s a rival that betters it in one way or another. While the Civic doesn’t bring anything new to the market it is still a decent rival to the class leaders. But it’s nowhere near the same level as a Golf, or even the Mazda3. The reason why both those cars keep popping up in this review for the Civic is because they can do everything the Civic can, bar the Magic Seats, and some. They’re built as well as the Civic, they’re roughly the same size, come with the same spec, and are as economical. But the Golf adds a touch of class and a real premium feel over the Honda. Honda seem to have in their minds that’ they’re a bit more posh than other Japanese brands but that’s not necessarily the case.

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Then there’s the Mazda3 which seems to be the darling car across the ditch. Sales of the 3 have soared in recent years thanks in part to the new generation’s handsome design and impressive driving dynamics. I was thoroughly impressed by it and it had the performance the Civic could only dream of. As a left field alternative for the same sort of money I’d throw in the Alfa Romeo Giulietta into the mix. Sure it’s not as well made or well equipped as the Civic but it offers something a bit different is just so damn pretty. It drives quite nicely too. But if it were my money I wouldn’t go for the Civic, the Mazda, the Alfa, or even the Golf. No, my $40k would go to the Nissan Qashqai. Technically it’s not a family hatch, it’s a crossover, but it does cost around the same sort of money and is the same size. In many ways the Qashqai is everything the Civic wants to be. They’re both made in the UK and they both ride well over NZ roads. But where the Qashqai rises above the Civic is that it offers buyers a more rounded package. The Qashqai for me is still the ideal family car for modern day Kiwi families. That’s not to say the Euro Civic should be dismissed from your new car shopping list. It’s a worthy alternative to the class leaders but it’s an alternative nevertheless.

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Verdict: 7/10
Pros: Practicality and Magic seats, well equipment, superb build quality, composed handling, perfectly configured ride, modern styling, sci-fi instrument display, decent economy.
Cons: Engine needs to be worked hard, old-fashioned buttons for audio, rear visibility, outclassed by rivals.
Honda’s Euro Civic is the Civic to buy but not the one I’d pick from this segment. It does many things well, however rivals do them better.

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Specifications:
Engine: 1796cc four-cylinder petrol
Power: 138bhp, 104kW
Torque: 174NM
0-100 km/h: 9.1 seconds
Top Speed: 215 km/h
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Fuel Economy: 6.6L/100km
C02 Emissions: 155g/km
Drive: Front-wheel
Weight: 1342kg
Width: 1770mm
Length: 4315mm
Height: 1475mm
Fuel Tank: 50L
Luggage Capacity: 487L

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Split Personality Coupe

2014 Hyundai Veloster Turbo review

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Most new cars these days have very similar designs to their rivals. Buying a car for its style and looks seems to be a thing of the past, unless you’re buying an Aston Martin. Though technically they’re cars from the last decade. But for everyone else wanting to buy a car from a mainstream brand the choices for a style-based option are limited. There is a reason for this though. As a general rule, ‘mainstream’ cars have gotten better looking in recent times. Kia are no longer cars you can laugh at, Mazda have a range of genuinely good looking cars, and even Toyota are moving away from the white-ware look they once were known for.

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Another reason is the Nissan Qashqai. This car, or should I say crossover, changed what the average family car buyer want. It brought SUV-styling and driving position to the masses but in an easy to handle hatchback-sized car. It was a brilliant idea and sold so well it became known to Nissan execs as the Cashcow. That’s not true but it may as well be. After seeing the success of the Qashqai other manufacturers followed Nissan’s lead and made their own version of a small crossover. Damn nearly every single mainstream manufacturer have a Qashqai competitor and they all look identical. They drive pretty similar too.

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So if you want a family car that stands out and is a bit different from the crowd then why not have a look at the Hyundai Veloster. When I worked for a Hyundai dealership a while ago I had the chance to drive pretty much the entire range. I got to drive the i20, Accent, i30, i40, i45, ix35, Santa Fe, and even an iLoad van. They were all nice and sensible and actually, I quite liked the Santa Fe. But I never got to drive a Veloster. Either I was never around when one was there or if I was there one was never available. It was one of those things where the universe was doing everything in its power to not get me behind the wheel of a Veloster. Well after almost a year in waiting I’ve finally driven one.

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Before we get to how this Turbo version of the Veloster drives let’s talk about the way it looks. While it’s not classed a ‘crossover’ in the traditional sense, it’s one styling-wise. This is technically a ‘four-door’ car but where the doors are placed is not ordinary. On the right side, or driver’s side, it has one door giving it the look of a coupe. However, on the left/passenger side are two doors. One for the front seat and one for the rear, which makes it look like a sensible family hatch. It’s caught a few people off and some do find it weird, me included. But now it makes a lot of sense. Oh and the fourth door is the boot, obviously.

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I’m quite a fan of Hyundai’s fluidic design language. It’s a welcome change from the bland vanilla styling of Hyundais of old. Up front the Turbo version gets a bigger, angrier grille over the standard Veloster. There’s a lot going on in the design such as crease from the headlights to the intake. Oh the headlights are worth pointing out because they come with LED daytime running lights and the coolest xenon projectors I’ve ever seen. It looks like the Terminator’s eye. There’s also a more prominent and very pointy splitter. The bonnet gets some faux vents, which while look tacky are hard to dislike.

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I’ve already talked about the sides regarding the doors but the overall shape is reminiscent of a VW Scirocco. No bad thing. There are more homages to other well known cars too such as the wraparound windscreen which tapers like a Lancia Stratos. You always hear reviewers going about how cars such as the Range Rover Evoque and BMW i8 look like road legal concept cars. They do have a point, those cars do look like they came straight from a motor show but I’d argue the same with the Veloster too. It just looks so different.

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Round the back the sloping roofline does hamper rearwards visibility but alas there is a very smart Korean solution; have two rear windscreens. They’re split by a spoiler that looks nice from the outside but is rather intrusive from the inside. The taillights are quite alien-like too and have a weird crease that goes into the boot lid. But my favourite part of its weirdly attractive bum are the twin-exhausts which are great for two reasons: 1) they’re in the middle like a Ferrari 458 and 2) look at the size of them! This is a Hyundai after all. And we can’t forget about the paint job. Have you even seen a paint job on a mainstream car that was as cool as this? I know matte cars are very tedious to look after but I would be willing to hand was this car every week to have this paint in my life. It really adds to the Veloster’s overall look.

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The theme of shock and awe continues when you drive it. It’s just not what you’d expect from a Hyundai. I think Hyundai knew the Veloster wouldn’t sell in large numbers but that’s not the point. When mainstream companies venture out to produce sports cars they do so in hope that it’d help change the perception of their brand. Look at how the GT86 has changed Toyota and it’s recent products. It’s the same with Subaru and the BRZ, Nissan and the 370Z, and Peugeot with the RCZ. The Veloster had one job to do and it’s done it so well, it’s made me see Hyundai in a different light. No it’s not up there with the likes of the Golf GTI or MINI Cooper S but it’s a step in the right direction.

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Under the bonnet is a 1.6 GDI turbo unit also found in the Kia Pro’ceed GT. It pumps out a healthy 204bhp and 265NM of torque. That gets it from 0-100 km/h in 7 seconds and onto a top speed of 240 km/h. So it’s definitely got the figures of a hot hatch and sounds it too. It’s loud but not overly loud like the whole “look at me I’m a boy racer” nonsense. It certainly wouldn’t wake your suburban neighbours up in the morning. The noise itself isn’t particularly sporty and not all that nice but it does help add to the experience. Not quite as addictive as the brilliant turbo whine you get from above 2000rpm. That is quite literally an intoxicating addiction. Actually the turbo whine itself is all well and nice but the actual turbo effect isn’t as noticeable. There’s none of the usual turbo lag you get with most turbo engines, the power delivery was quite similar to that of a naturally aspirated engine. In saying that you do feel that between 2000rpm-4000rpm is where the engine feels at its best. I just wish it sounded nicer.

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In terms of responsiveness the Veloster is good. Throttle and brakes offer good feel. Actually the brakes were fantastic. Even used to their limits they still provided good feel and effectiveness. The conventional torque-converter automatic was pretty good too, though it can’t quite match more modern dual-clutch systems. Left to its own devices in Drive or Sports mode it didn’t provide lightning fast changes I’ve gotten used to with DCTs. In manual mode which can be controlled via gearstick or paddle shifters it’s an improvement. The shifts via the paddles are good enough to satisfy even the pickiest of drivers. Once you’ve got the gears mastered it is possible to make this thing fly in pretty much any gear. The way it picks up speed as well as Colin Farrell does is astonishing. Okay, not quite as mind-blowing as that but for what it it’s pretty impressive. It doesn’t throw your head back but rather it just gets on with the job of accelerating in a composed manner.

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The pick up and go did put a smile on my face but what kept the smile there was the way this thing handled. There aren’t any adjustable this or electronic that, there’s just one factory default setting which Hyundai’s engineers have tailored for this car. The electrically-assisted steering had wonderful weight and feel. It’s pretty much spot on in how you can feel the road underneath you and placing the car perfectly on the road. The steering is quick too, good for changing directions easily. It’s also blessed with a versatile and well sorted chassis. Because it’s power isn’t intimidating and all the controls feel fantastic, the Veloster is the sort of car you could push and keep on pushing without killing yourself. It drove predictively and not once did I feel a hint torque steer or understeer. There was also virtually no flex on rough roads or body roll around tight corners. The suspension is well judged too with good damping and a relatively comfortable ride over rougher surfaces. Even with its sporting intentions and large 18-inch alloys the Veloster rode impressively well for a sporty car. It didn’t crash or judder much over the course of my time with it. That’s what impressed me most about the Veloster. Just how it was so good at covering ground and all the basics too.

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As a car with a split personality in the same way Korea is split, the Veloster has an edgy and sporty side to it but also a very sensible and practical side too. As an everyday car the Veloster makes a lot of sense. Take the frontwards and side visibility. It’s just like that of a normal Hyundai hatchback. The wing mirrors are sensibly large too. But then its sporty side come creeping in from behind. No, it literally does. Remember that sloping roofline that looks so nice from the outside? Well from inside you get a very small and narrow rear windscreen. There is an extra bit of glass but that’s got a spoiler through it, which from the rear-view mirror just show a big slab of plastic. And don’t even get me started on the blind spot you get from the c-pillar! Definitely not ideal for parking. Thank god it has a reversing camera.

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Hyundai got the driving position pretty much spot on. It felt comfortable and everything felt naturally placed. I hopped in and drove it without too any complications. The sports bucket seats offered great support and were notably comfortable. Up front, there’s decent room and good adjustability. Strangely only the driver’s seats are power operated, the passenger has to operate their seat manually. In the back however, things aren’t as generous. Okay this isn’t meant to be a family car, more a sports car with easy to access rear seats. It’s not too bad in there. Behind my own driving position I had (just) enough legroom to be comfy for short trips. Headroom was more of an issue though. My head was touching the roof. Perhaps without a panoramic roof headroom in the back would be better but without a panoramic roof the interior feels dark and claustrophobic. Not that buyers have a choice as it’s a standard fit feature. The rear seats also fold with a 40/60 split turning the Veloster into a mini-van. The amount of space you have with rear seats down is incredible. The boot itself is already a decent size with the seats up.

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Inside it’s quite a nice place to spend time in too. The interior continues the exterior’s fluidic design with lines and creases scattered around the interior. I’m always impressed at the quality of materials used in Hyundai interiors. There’s good use of soft touch materials and more than generous use of leather. I particularly like the little leather leg patches on the centre console for you to rest your left leg. It’s small touches like that really make a car special. Oh and the grab handles for the doors too. They were nice big chunky things that felt meaty. Okay, while the chunky door grabs don’t make it any more sporty it does add to the whole sporty experience. I like all the nice touches Hyundai have added to the interior like the two-tone leather seats that have ‘Turbo’ embossed on them. Just a friendly reminder of what you’re in. I like all the different surfaces on the dashboard showing that someone has taken the time to design the interior and not just slabbed a pit of plastic here and there.

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Central to the dash is a 7-inch TFT touchscreen. It’s the same screen you get in the Santa Fe and posher versions of the i40. It’s a nice screen to look at and easy to use. It displays the climate control, audio information, bluetooth phone, and reversing camera. On a note about the audio information, when you stream music via bluetooth it doesn’t display song or artist info. Other systems do show these and the fact the Veloster didn’t was a surprise to me. Because as a whole it does feel like being inside a Samsung Galaxy smartphone in there. It feels very modern and youthful. Oh and the blue lighting, the blue lightning everywhere. I’ve always been a sucker for blue lighting and it’s the same in here.

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Unfortunately there was no sign of satellite navigation. I can live with that though because the Veloster is one of the best equipped cars I’ve come across. Everything you could possibly need from a car costing $49,990 is here. Leather seats, panoramic sunroof, climate control, reversing camera and rear parking sensors, bi-xenon headlights, keyless entry and go, iPod connectivity, bluetooth phone and audio connectivity.. the list goes on. It’s got lots of safety kit too. It’s scored the maximum 5-star rating on the ANCAP tests, it comes packed with VDC and TCS, and has half a dozen airbags. On the face of it the Veloster does offer tremendous value.

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That is until you compare it to is rivals. Hyundai have benchmarked the Veloster Turbo agains the likes of the Alfa Romeo MiTo and MINI Cooper S. Both those cars do have a lower starting price but they don’t come with the same levels of kit or practicality. But then if you wanted a car for around $50k that was both practical and sporty, may I point you in the direction of the Skoda Octavia Combi vRS. This is a vastly bigger boot and an extra seat with more rear headroom too. Oh sure it’s nowhere near as exciting to look at but it is just as exciting to drive and has more grunt. So in saying the Veloster Turbo doesn’t really make for a very good buy. But actually it’s one of the best cars for this sort of money available at the moment simply because it’s not like anything else out there.

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The Skoda is a very good car but it has to compete with the likes of the VW Golf GTI, Mini Clubman S, and even the Subaru Legacy Wagon. It’s the same with the Mini and Alfa which compete against each other as well as the Citroen DS3Abarth 500, Ford Fiesta ST, VW Polo GTI, Peugeot 208 GTI… etcetera etcetera. A case could be made to add the Veloster to that list of Mini rivals but the fact of the matter is the Veloster’s extra door, which in turn gives it an extra edge in practicality too. That means it goes into a no-man’s land between the Mini and Octavia with virtually no direct rivals. It’s a niche within a niche. And while everyone else in the world are buying up crossovers here’s one that is worth buying because it’s so different. It’s an enjoyable hot hatch on one side and a practical hatch on the other. Finally this is a sports car you could convince your wife to buy, giving the Veloster Turbo the title of the best his and her car on sale right now.

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Verdict: 8/10
Pros: Different styling, split personality between sports and sense, great handling, comfortable ride, entertaining turbo engine, Unique proposition, quite practical, decent sized boot, well equipped.
Cons: Uninspiring noise, poor rearwards visibility, trip computer doesn’t show fuel range on empty, lack of rear headroom, still a tight squeeze in back.
Hyundai’s return to an affordable sports car is a step in the right direction in terms of style and performance, split personality and all. A perfect nationalistic symbol of the Koreas.

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Specifications:
Engine: 1591cc four-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Power: 204bhp, 150kW
Torque: 265NM
0-100 km/h: 6.9 seconds
Top Speed: 240 km/h
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Fuel Economy: 7.6L/100km
C02 Emissions: 181g/km
Drive: Front-wheel
Weight: 1347kg
Width: 1805mm
Length: 4220mm
Height: 1409mm
Fuel Tank: 50L
Luggage Capacity: 320L

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Let’s Torque About This

2014 Mercedes Benz C250 Bluetec review

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Recently, I tried something I never thought I’d ever do in my life. It was called ‘hot yoga’ and it was simply one of the most ridiculous things I have ever attempted in my life. You’re put in a hot room with half naked people and you all sweat together as you fold yourself to become human origami. Essentially it’s like self inflicted torture but to make things worse you’re breathing other people’s sweat. Yes, it was as ridiculous as it sounds. I honestly couldn’t think of anything more horrible way of spending a Friday night. I would rather stick my head into an elephant’s bottom.

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I literally have no idea how I got convinced to try it but I’m glad I did. I assumed yoga would be easy because it’s something one imagines housewives doing after doing the school run. It’s actually a lot harder than it sounds and I do appreciate the skill required for it. Nevertheless I still thing it’s a load of bollocks. That said I did feel more refreshed afterwards so that’s a plus. So I tried something new and it wasn’t what I expected but I’m glad I did because I now know what to avoid next time.

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This brings me on to the car I’ve been driving recently. It’s the new Mercedes-Benz C250 Bluetec and yes I know, I’ve already driven a C-Class but that was the C200 petrol. That all nice and well, a small turbocharged petrol engine in a small limo was surprisingly swift and smooth. Just what you want from a limo. But how would the diesel compare? Would the extra grunt for the diesel engine be enough to turn the C-Class into a semi-sports saloon? It should also be noted that this will be my last review with Mercedes-Benz Wellington so as farewells go, what’s the C250 like? But first the engine.

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Only a few years ago diesel engines were reserved for agricultural 4x4s, tractors, and big rigs. Diesels were rough, coarse, and hopelessly slow. That’s no longer the case today. Diesels have become more refined, more powerful, and more popular. We see diesels all over the place from Le Mans racers to small city cars and even high-end luxury cars. In Europe diesels are king and they’re becoming more accepted in markets that didn’t traditionally favour them, i.e. Japan and the USA.

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So bring all that together in a Mercedes sedan and you’d expect it to be smooth and refined. And you’d be right. Previously, the only other diesel Mercedes tested was the GLA200 CDI and that was a bit rough and didn’t seem quite right for a premium car. I suggested it should have this ‘250’ engine. It ups the engine size from 1.6-litres to a 2.1-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel but with a bit more power. In this guise the engine pumps out 204bhp and a whopping 500NM of torque. 500 of anything is always good. 500 dollars, 500 pints of beer, and especially 500NM! To put that into perspective the old 6.2 C63 AMG had 600NM. The great thing about this engine is the immediacy of all that torque. Available from as low as 2000rpm, you get the sensation of a much faster car as you accelerate. It’s not as responsive as a petrol engine, no diesel I’ve tried ever has been, but for a small turbo diesel it’s mighty impressive.

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All that torque gives the C250 a punch as effective as it was surprising, as if Manny Pacquiao was under the bonnet. You could even say it can walk to the walk and torque the torque… Anyway, it also makes a semi-sporty noise. Actually for a diesel the noise isn’t too bad. It’s only noticeable on idle but that can be solved by having the stop/start function turned on. On the motorway and in town conditions the engine is quite hushed and settles to a distant hum. Only when your right foot gets heavy do you get a noise that somewhat resembles blending pebbles.

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Never would I have expected a diesel powered Mercedes sedan to feel as much like a performance car as this thing did. Even with a diesel engine adding weight to the nose, it still steered nicely. It had decent weight to the steering and was direct. Placing the C-Class on the road was no problem and it provided a safe and secure driving style. Even when pushed it never seems to want to step out of line. It’s such a confidence inspiring car. It encouraged you to keep pushing and when you did you could with the knowledge of the safety gubbins working away in the background. All safety tech is there to help make the driving experience better, not ruin it. It made me feel like a hero. With 204bhp it felt like it had enough grunt for most situations. It felt controllable and not at all intimidating. It’s not a sports car by any means but it did feel relatively sporty, which for a diesel sedan is quite an impressive feat.

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The road for the review was the Akatarawa Road. This was a long and narrow stretch of twisty hill road in the middle of nowhere. It stretches for 35 kilometres from the top of Upper Hutt to a small town called Waikanae. The road had blind, tight corners and an a variety of camber changes and different road surfaces. There were parts that were uphill, some downhill, and quite a few straights. It was the ideal road to find out if the C250 Bluetec was a sports sedan or not.

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The C250 felt right and had a neutral handling. It didn’t understeer and despite the massive torque figure it didn’t oversteer either. Well, much. There were a couple of times around mid-corner where the back would kick out under power but never too much that I felt out of control. It’s such a manageable car to drive and really owes it to a well sorted chassis. I mean if this is the diesel variant with an AMG pack I can only imagine how wonderful the full V8 AMG C63 would be. Interestingly I found the C-Class AMG Line to be quite similar to the Lexus IS350 F-Sport. Okay, the IS had a 3.5-litre V6 under the bonnet which meant it felt a lot quicker but the subtle sporting changes over felt like they further enhanced the abilities of the car rather than spoiling or taking away from the whole ‘luxury’ experience.

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The C200 felt like a little limo. It felt like a mini-S-Class in the way it went about its business. It was effortless, refined, and composed. That car sat on standard suspension and standard wheels. The C250 Bluetec as tested came with the AMG Line package which brings 15mm lower suspension and larger 19-inch wheels. Despite this it still rode with all the comfort you’d expect from a car bearing a three-point star. Even on the rough roads around Akatarawa it still managed to provide a comfortable ride. You do feel the road more with the AMG pack equipped but that’s to be expected as you are closer to the road. It wasn’t too much to make it a problem but just about right to make it feel sporty and connected.

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But of course even with an AMG kit it still feels more suited to motorway driving. You can take the comfort out of a Mercedes but you can’t take the Mercedes out of comfort. That didn’t work as well as I hoped it would. Anyway, the C250 AMG Line does at least work on the motorway. The test car was optioned with the Vision Pack which includes a panoramic sunroof and heads-up display, and a Driver Assistance package which includes DISTRONIC Plus radar guided cruise control. It really should be called the fantastic motorway cruiser pack. The combination of all three turns driving up and down motorways from a chore to something you can truly enjoy.

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DISTRONIC hooks on to the car in front and maintains a set speed. If the car in front slows down then the C-Class will automatically slow down too. Then should the car in front speed up, so too does the Merc. It’s completely genius and will even go to a complete stop. If that’s not enough the Attention Assist will make an audible and visual warning if the car senses you’re not paying attention to the road ahead. If you’ve you the reflexes of a log then it’ll semi apply the brakes. It’s all very smart.

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I just wish the standard sat-nav was as good. The test car was almost the exact spec of my ideal C-Class. Palladium Silver with AMG Line and with Vision Pack. It just needed to be optioned with the COMAND Pack and it would’ve been perfect. The standard 7-inch screen isn’t bad but with the larger 8-inch display it brings the interior on to a whole different level. The bezel is also thinner but more importantly the sat-nav is hugely improved.

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This is the third time I’ve tested a Mercedes with the Garmin Map PILOT sat-nav and in my previous two experiences with it was in an A-Class and GLA. It didn’t bother me so much in those cars as I understood they were ‘entry’ level Mercs. In a C-Class that’s nudging on $100k this sort of sat-nav is unacceptable. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it does, it’s just very slow and not all that intelligent. And why is the icon a pink car? Why? It’s not very good to look at either. It reminded me of a 1990s racing game. It looked very cartoonish and not at all as nice as the ‘proper’ COMAND system.

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This was the first time I had gone on the Akatarawa road and assumed it was an easy straight up and then out to civilisation. Unfortunately there were roadworks. Granted this was a small road so the sat-nav wouldn’t have picked up but when I asked it to take me back to Mercedes-Benz Wellington it told me to straight ahead through the roadworks. So as I did a u-turn it recalculated the route, which took around a couple of minutes. I wasn’t impressed. Luckily the directions on the heads-up display were good and clear but it still frustrated me. I needed something to calm me down after this, but not yoga. Good thing the C250 had the grunt it had or else I’d have still been on that road.

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Luckily you still get the same controls as you get with the larger screen so it’s all very easy to use and intuitive. The handwriting capable touchpad became easier to use the more I had practice with it. The standard sat-nav screen also comes with all the connectivity you’d ever need. Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, USB and iPod connectivity, digital radio, and it’s played through standard speakers. The C200 was fitted with Burmester speakers but even the standard fit speakers were good. It made think twice about having the Burmester in my ideal C-Class as there wasn’t much difference in sound quality to my ears. But then the Burmester speakers do look very nice so I’d have them anyway.

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They add a lot the whole look and feel of the interior. Which is saying something as the interior is still my favourite part of the C-Class. It’s even better with the AMG Line fitted. In standard trim you get lovely Piano Black trim. Nothing wrong with that but in the AMG Line you get the most beautiful unpolished black ash wood trim. If that weren’t fancy enough you also get an analogue clock that looks as expensive as it costs to buy.

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Space inside was good. Up front you get great space and lots of adjustability with the electric seats. The steering wheel is still offset though. As the gear selector is on the steering column there are lots of nifty cubby holes on the centre console. There’s a couple of cupholders and under the central armrest is a good sized cubby hole to store media devices as that’s where the USB ports are. The glovebox is pretty useable too, which comes as a nice surprise as most cars these days have pathetically small gloveboxes.

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Behind my own driving position I had enough head and legroom to be comfortable for a cross continent trip. No seriously, it’s pretty nice in the back. The middle seat is a bit small and the transmission tunnel a bit big but if you’re only carrying three passengers then the C-Class is very good. The boot, complete with electric opening and closing function for sir, is a good size and shape. It’s identical to the Lexus IS and BMW 3-Series at 480L capacity too. The rear seats fold down with a 60/40 split if you need to carry larger items.

 

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The AMG Line does make the gorgeous interior look even better but it also does wonders for the exterior. The standard C-Class is a very grand and elegant looking car. Certainly the most sophisticated, and dare I say most expensive looking car in its class. The mini-S-Class look has definitely paid off. Add the AMG styling bits such as a sportier front and rear bumpers, lower skirts, larger 19-inch multispoke alloys, and a cheeky spoiler on the bootlid and you’ve got a car that looks every bit as fast as it goes. I have to say it also looks even more impressive and expensive too. Here’s the thing though, while it does look fast it doesn’t shout about it. I like that. It’s flash without looking like trash.

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I still believe this is the best looking C-Class to date. The previous W204 generation, particularly post-facelift looked aggressive. This one with the AMG Line fitted still pulls that trick but also with a touch more class. It looks and feels every bit as expensive as it’s price tag suggests. And more. There are a couple driving around Wellington already and every time one goes by, I can’t help but take a second look. They really do stand out thanks in part to the pretty daytime running lights.

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There aren’t many optional extras for the C-Class. Most are bundled together in handy packages, such the AMG Line, Vision Package, and COMAND package. The standard features on the C-Class are very un-German in that there’s quite a lot thrown in. Intelligent LED headlights, a number of safety technology, front and rear parking sensors, reversing camera, 19-inch alloys, privacy glass, KEYLESS entry and go, and full leather upholstery to name a few. If this car had come out a decade or so ago you’d be lucky to have floor mats fitted as standard.

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Audi and BMW do make some fantastic diesel engines. The 3.0TDI in the A6 Allroad and the 3.0-litre diesel in the X5 xDrive40d were two of the reasons why I started respecting and even liking diesel engines. While I have yet to try the equivalent diesel A4 or 3-Series I have no doubt that they’d be just as impressive as their larger siblings. I also know for a fact that the diesel engine in the Mercedes isn’t as quiet as the other two. But despite this I’d still put a strong case forward for the C250. The diesel does suit the C-Class quite well. It may not be responsive but it is effortless and packs quite a punch.

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There are pros and cons for petrol and diesel engines and it depends on your driving style and preference. Both engines are good and I’m happy I got to try out a diesel powered C-Class. The C-Class is still my pick of this segment as it brings a whole new meaning to ‘affordable luxury’. As a small limo the C-Class is simply in a class of one. In terms of luxury, elegance, and class it blows the competition out of the water. Driving the diesel reminded me of the C-Class’ many talents and the engine itself does feel every bit as capable as its petrol counterpart. However as a personal preference I’d still go for petrol. I am a petrolhead after all. But like hot yoga I’m glad I tried the diesel engine. I see the appeal of a diesel, that torque and the range in particular. The C300 Bluetec Hybrid which combines a diesel engine and electric motor for the ultimate in C-Class economy could also be a worth option. Unlike hot yoga, however, I’d be happy to try the diesel or even the diesel hybrid again, and again, and again. At least with the C-Class the only things you’re burning are rubber and black fuel. Should you start to sweat it has a pretty damn good climate control system too.

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Verdict: 9/10
Pros: Great looks and style, Mercedes image, class-leading interior design, superb build quality, good space, enjoyable drive, surprising performance, that incredible torque, decent fuel economy, loaded with technology, lots of safety kit..
Cons: Same as the C200; slightly offset steering wheel, awkward controls. Main one is the hopeless standard sat-nav screen though.
Diesel engine gives the already brilliant C-Class more talents. The extra torque and fuel range makes the C250 Bluetec a great long distance cruiser. However for most cases I’d still go for the petrol versions.

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Specifications
Engine: 2143cc four-cylinder turbocharged diesel
Power: 204bhp, 150KW
Torque: 500NM
0-100 km/h: 6.6 seconds
Top Speed: 250 km/h (electronically limited)
Transmission: 7G-Tronic automatic
Fuel Economy: 4.5L/100km
CO2 Emissions: 116g/km
Drive: Rear-wheel
Weight: 1595kg
Length: 4686mm
Width: 1810mm
Height: 1442mm
Fuel Tank: 66L
Luggage Capacity: 480L

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My Ride In A Mclaren MP4-12C

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From the moment I saw it from afar, I knew it was a special car. It was midday on Saturday and I was waiting for my aunt and uncle outside a restaurant for lunch. They were running a bit late so I went for a wander. That’s when I saw a Lightning Silver Aston Martin Vanquish. I knew where it was from. It was from the Giltrap Roadshow I attended only yesterday. Moments after the black 12C Spider followed in a wave of noise. It was at this point I started power walking back to the Gazley showroom.

As I got close to the Giltrap Roadshow I saw a black wing mirror sticking out behind a hatchback. Usually I’d be able to remember the hatchback, a VW or something, but in this instance I was more interested in the car behind. My first thought was something Italian; a Lamborghini perhaps? But as I got closer I saw the distinctive side vents and its headlights. It was none other than a MP4-12C Coupe. I’ve only seen one before. It was a white one in Christchurch. This one was all black with extra carbon fibre bits. I went back to the Roadshow with one goal: to get a ride in one of the cars. But before I had the chance to ask one of the dealers I was opening the beetle-wing doors of the Mclaren. I have to thank Sam from Auto Clique NZ and Ian from Cruise Control for introucing me to Steve, the driver of the Mclaren. And my eternal gratitude to Steve too for making this boy very, very happy.

Climbing into the Mclaren was an event on its own. The beautiful upwards opening door and high sills look like it’d be awkward but it felt like second nature. As if my body was designed to get in and out of supercars with ease. Must be destiny. Sitting inside the low-slung sports seats was surprisingly comfortable. This was possibly the lowest I’ve ever sat in a car. The first thing you notice are the lack of buttons. It’s all very minimalist. There’s a sense of lightness about the car. It only weighs around 1200kg, which is frankly amazing for a car of this type. Because it’s built to be as light as possible some of the components aren’t as study as they are in other cars. The plastic door release on the passenger door for example had snapped right off. Not sure if it’s shoddy build quality or just really thin plastic.

A large central touchscreen dominates the slim carbon-fibre centre console. It’s a good looking screen. Below that are only a few buttons that do important things. One is traction, the other is launch. Below those was the starter button. Steve pressed this and the Mclaren’s 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 came to life. It didn’t roar or scream like a Ferrari or even an Audi R8. It was actually pretty quiet. Not what I expected from a company known for making screaming F1 racing cars.

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Before setting off Steve asked me if I’ve been in one before, “no” I replied. He then asked what the fasted car I’ve been in was, “Audi R8 V10” I said rather nervously. That car developed 550bhp from its 5.2-litre V10. The Mclaren was pumping out 616bhp. I have never been in a car as quick or expensive in my life. Well, at least not on the road. Unfortunately it was on public city roads which was bad for two reasons: 1) there was traffic and buses. The Mclaren is a wide car and even though I was sat on the passenger side, when a bus went past I couldn’t help but jump to the other side. Steve said the Mclaren wasn’t too bad around town and was a lot easier than a Ferrari.

Secondly, because we were restricted to city limits I couldn’t experience the Mclaren’s full potential. I would have loved to have felt it accelerate at 100% as the small waves of acceleration Steve did in off stop lights was absolutely and utterly intoxicating. The way this thing pinned your head back was incredible. The way this thing picks up speed is beyond belief. You know that feeling you get when a plane is about to take off, well it was like that only more brutal.

Then there were the brakes. If the acceleration was impressive the way this thing loses speed was even more incredible. It had ma-hoosive carbon ceramic brakes fitted and they brought the MP4-12C to a halt quicker than train hitting a wall. They were astonishing and literally took my breath away. Actually seeing a black Mclaren on the road damn nearly took everyone else’s breath away. These are very rare cars, especially in New Zealand. Not many people know about Mclarens either as they’re a relatively young (and small) company. But it still drew attention like a monk on fire. Everyone from businesswomen to children, pensioners to bearded bikers pointed and stared at this black beauty.

I’ll be honest and admit I’ve never been a huge fan of this car. I respected it immensely. The engineering behind this car is simply impressive and would love to have a carbon-fibre tub in my car. Black supercars aren’t my thing either, I think a supercar should standout so it should have a bright colour. But even I’d stop and quickly rush to get my phone out to take a photo of this car. It just has that presence about it. It has that supercar magic. It has the looks to draw a crowd, it has Mclaren’s extensive Formula 1 knowhow, and it has the speed to match the price. But what I did find somewhat odd was the noise. I assumed the lack of screaming and noise at startup was intentional. I thought it’d get better as it picked up speed but throughout the admittedly short ride it didn’t make loud supercar noises.

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We went on the same route as when I got a ride in a Ferrrari 550 Maranello and even that made all the right loud supercar noises. It howled, it screamed, it bellowed, and it roared. The Mclaren was nowhere near as operatic as the Ferrari. Oh sure it had a nice deep sound but it didn’t have the volume. Nevertheless the whole experience of riding in a Mclaren and feeling a fraction of its capabilities for but a few minutes was enough to keep me smiling and giggling for the rest of the day, if not the week. It did have a much nicer ride than the Ferrari though. In fact it had a much nicer ride than most cars I’ve been in. It’s an absolutely incredible car and an amazing piece of engineering. While I may not lust after one, I do have more respect and admiration for it.

But most of all I am completely convinced that this is every bit as magical as a supercar can be. It does have something about it that only the best supercars have. It’s an intangible thing but whatever it is, I adore it when cars have it. Simply put it’s made my childhood dreams come true and made me feel like a child all at the same time. From recent memory only the R8 and 550 have managed to do this. In other words despite not dreaming about the Mclaren when I was a small boy, this car still managed to have the same effect on me as the stuff of my childhood dreams. If there’s a point in a supercar then it’s that. It should make you feel like a child again and you can’t put a price on that. Well, actually you can. It’s around $400,000.

Get The Show On The Road

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I knew today was going to be great, I never expected it to be as spectacular as it was. I had high expectations, which were met and more, and I fell in love all over again. In many ways it was more enlightening than anything else. So before I get on about all the great and wonderful cars I saw today, we must first talk about the actual day itself. It was the last day of the last week of university this year so the roadshow went well with my schedule. I had looked forward to it for weeks and thought of it as a celebration to end the year. The anticipation certainly built up in the days prior to the show. Even more so in the morning.

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Ah, the morning. The weather in Wellington, and all around New Zealand actually, is about as predictable as an agitated shark. It can literally change from cold, blizzard-like conditions one day and be scorching the next. The past week or so has been quite nice spring weather. I even got to wear shorts – quite a big deal this time of the year. But then, but then of all the days for the weather to turn nasty it just had to be today. Driving down did pop into my head but then I had to worry about parking and in all truth and fairness the Alfa wasn’t in its best form at the moment. So on foot it was. The walk down wasn’t too bad, the weather wasn’t at its worst. There were showers and the wind was a bit gusty but nothing the excitement and adrenaline I had for these wonderful cars.

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The Giltrap Roadshow, hosted by Gazley Wellington, is the first of its kind and I hope there are more in the future. It’s a great idea taking the latest and greatest supercars around the country for everyone to see. You could see the diversity in the crowds that showed up today. From children to painters, businessmen and retirees, with the odd petrolhead blogger in the mix too. The people, the conversations, and the atmosphere all radiated off the incredible cars on display.

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As soon as I saw the white Lamborghini sign, I knew it had all been worth it. The first car I saw, well the first car that drew my attention, was the red Huracan sitting there in the showroom like a prized jewel. It was stunning. My first impressions of it reminded me more of a Countach than a Gallardo. It had that presence about it. Dear god it was compact though. I’ve seen Gallardos up close before but they didn’t look as small as the Huracan. It must because of the simpler lines. It did have some exquisite details though. Such as the headlights which despite not being turned on looked more like something you’d find in a Tiffany box. However, the taillights are still my favourite bit about it. They look superb.

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I wasn’t so keen on the plastic engine cover though. Not only because plastic on a $420k car is blasphemy but also because you can’t admire the 610bhp 5.2L V10. A glass engine cover is an optional extra, among many other I presume. Still, at least the plastic engine cover didn’t take away from the Huracan’s wonderful shape. The Huracan is definitely a more elegant and beautiful car. But is that what you want from a Lamborghini? I’m not so sure. I’ll say this though; I’d much rather have this than an Aventador. I know, a Lambo should be outrageous and flamboyant but the Huracan’s looks just do it for me. I’ll a purple one with lime great seats please.

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Next to the Huracan were two Mclarens; a black 12C Spider and a white 650S Spider. I had never seen a Mclaren up close and personal before. I remember driving pat a white MP4-12C a few months ago but I couldn’t take a snap of it because I was driving. Obviously. So what did I think of my first close encounter with a Mclaren? Hmm, well I’ll admit the 650S definitely catches the eye. Maybe it’s the P1-style nose or the fact that it costs an eye-watering $552,000 but it does have appeal. I’ll be honest and I’ve never really been a huge fan of Mclaren cars. Oh sure I have huge respect for them. The engineering that goes behind their cars is probably more comprehensive than every other brand combined but they never seem to stir my emotions.

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The 650S, as the name suggests, produces 650bhp from the same 3.8L twin-turbo V8 found the 12C. In that, it was only pumping out 620bhp. But weirdly I preferred the old 12C’s face more. The 650S looks like it’s trying too hard. That said I did get the opportunity to open those swan-wing doors and they are just fantastic. I would never get bored of them. Sitting inside the 650S felt just right. The driving position was spot on. I mean this was absolutely perfect. Everything felt like it was designed just for you. No one else. The dash was minimalist so there’s as little to distract the driver as possible. The sills were quite high. I’ll admit I was a tiny bit disappointed I didn’t get to see the carbon tub which was hidden under some alcantara. Oh well.

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From the Mclarens I went to go see a pair of Bentleys. There was a black GT V8S and a Flying Spur with the most beautiful blue paint I have ever seen. The GT V8S didn’t really catch my eye as I’ve seen, sat, and photographed a few before. So with that I made a ‘B’ line for the Flying Spur. You don’t see many of these around, even the first generation models. Which is a shame because they were my favourite Continental body style. Oh, I should point out this new one ditches the Continental in its name and is just known as the Flying Spur – to differentiate it from the Conti range. It still sits on the same platform, has the same engines (a 510bhp 4.0L twin-turbo V8 in this one), and pretty much the same interior too. But whatever Bentley. I still like the styling more than the Conti too. It’s like a cross between the Continental and the Mulsanne. Which fits in nicely with where the Flying Spur fits in the range. Inside it looks, feels, and smells expensive. Which is what you want a Bentley to do. Because it was a four-door Bentley, I went straight for the back seats. That’s where you want to spend time in a Bentley anyway. These are cars to be driven in. In the back there’s literally acres of space. You’d have no problem travelling up and down the country in the back of one of these. You get everything from sunshades to tables complete with a vanity mirror. Yes, just what every plutocrat needs. Some people I spoke found the legroom in the back of the Flying Spur a tad small. I didn’t find that at all. But then I guess Bentley still do want to sell the Mulsanne. The Flying Spur will no doubt be a hit in China as most people there, like me, won’t be bothered by the smaller dimensions.

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Ah, now we get to the Aston Martins. I got bored with Astons. I used to love them with all my heart. I used to want one more than I wanted cheesecake. My dreams and fantasies used to involve Eva Longoria and an Aston Martin DB9. Everything that could have a wallpaper; phone, computer, wall… was covered with photos of Aston Martins. I went and saw all three Daniel Craig Bond movies at the cinema just to see and hear the Astons in full surround sound. I was obsessed with them. But then they started to age. New rivals came out; the SLS AMG, Ferrari F12, Jaguar F-Type. I lost interest in Aston and got bored of them introducing more variants of the same cars. And they eventually all started to look the same. I mean sure, they were beautiful cars but a bit of diversity couldn’t hurt. Heck, even Porsche’s cars have some diversity in their designs. Aston Martin’s repetitive design language is especially clear when you see them all lined up. Like today for example. God they’re pretty little things. You very easily forget just how beautiful Astons are. No really, I can’t think of any other car on sale at the moment that are so perfectly styled like Astons. F-Type? No, front is too fiddly. Alfa 4C? Hmm maybe but the insect-style headlights aren’t for everybody. Maserati Ghibli? Taillights are bit Citroen-y. No, Astons are the only stylistically perfect cars on sale at the moment and I long needed reminding of that. Luckily there were four of them to do just that today.

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I didn’t know where to go first so I had to go for the one I hadn’t seen before – the V12 Vantage S. This little white beauty changed my life. It moved me in ways not many cars have done before. I fell in love with it. I don’t know if it was love at first sight or if it was me rekindling an old love but something special happened as soon as I went near it. The Vantage model may be 7-years old now but my god it’s still completely and utterly beautiful. As it was the V12 version this one had the four carbon-fibre vents on the grille. Some don’t like them. Some say they’re vulgar and over the top. I like them. I think they’re very cool. And excessive. But they do have a purpose as they help keep that massive 6.0L V12 cool. I love that. A massive V12 with 565bhp in a tiny car such as this, how can you not love that?

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The rest of the car was usual Vantage. Small dimensions, perfect proportions, and a sort of restrained angry look to them. I just how it combines aggressive sporty edginess with sensual and quite feminine curves. Then there were the doors. The angel wing doors that go up by 45 degrees to prevent hitting the kerb are wonderful. They open with all the grace of a princess and weight of a solid piece of furniture. They do feel very quality. Inside the fit and finish are just as impressive as the design of the exterior. You sit nice and low too. The driving position wasn’t Mclaren perfect but it was pretty damn close. It feels very much like a $350k car inside. The combination of leather, magnesium, and carbon-fibre was just right and the white leather inserts and white stitching were the cherry on the cake. Unfortunately the design of the interior was starting to show its age. It does look like an interior from 2007. Ergonomically it’s nowhere near as good as its rivals with their fancy touchscreens and rotary dial controls. There are buttons everywhere. And nothing is where you’d expect it to be. The handbrake is to your right, the controls for the seats are on transmission tunnel, and the dials appear to be trying to run away from each other. Regardless of all this the Vantage still had enough charm to seduce me back to it.

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Like with the Flying Spur, I went straight to the back seats of the Rapide S. This is Aston’s four-door car but unlike the Flying Spur makes no claims about being a limo. This is a ‘four-door’ supercar. The size of the rear doors are definitive proof of this. They’re absolutely tiny. I do like the shape of them though. Squeezing my 5’10” body in there was quite awkward. When I finally got it I found there was enough headroom but not enough legroom. I did fit, but at a pinch. As a car to be chauffeured in I’d pick the Bentley every time. Up front is where you want to be though. Astons should be driven. The Rapide S shares the same 6.0L V12 as other Astons and develops 55 0bhp. The interior of the Rapide is pretty much identical to every other Aston. A good way of thinking about the Rapide is just think of it as a DB9 with easy access rear seats.

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There was a DB9 next to the Rapide and I forgot how comical the rear seat were on those. They’re tiny. No human alive could fit in there. Unless you got someone off the cast of American Horror Story Freakshow or something. This particular DB9 was actually the Carbon Edition. Literally no idea what that means other than it was painted in Carbon Black and had bits of carbon-fibre here and there. To be honest most of the changes are unnecessary as the 510bhp 6.0L V12 engine remains unchanged. Only noticeable changes were the red highlights inside. Ooh I love it when a car has red piping or red inserts. This had it all; piping, inserts, and stitching. It even had bits of red leather on the paddles. Yes, I like that very much. As with other Astons it smelt very nice too.

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The final car was the Lightning Silver Vanquish S. This one has 570bhp from Aston’s tried and tested 6.0L V12. Stunning car, stunning engine. I’ve seen a few in my time already but it still manages to take my breath away every single time. It’s a gorgeous car. The One-77-inspired dash is also the most beautiful Aston interior ever; One-77 excluded of course. The diamond-patterned seats were just as amazing too. Not only did they look nice but they were nice to touch and sit on too. Outside the design is quite similar to other Astons, if not a bit more dramatic. I like dramatic. The rear has to be my favourite part of the Vanquish’s design. The thinner taillights and the integrated spoiler make me go all funny inside. They just do it for. Yup, they do. But strangely the Vanquish wasn’t my silver lining in the rain, it wasn’t even my favourite Aston there nor would it be the car I’d pick.

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I went to this car show to see the Huracan and Mclaren 650S. I hadn’t seen either before so was keen and curious to see what all the fuss was about. When I did see them they were just what I expected, and more. But there some parts which underwhelmed me. The plastic cover on the Huracan didn’t seem right to me. Especially on a car costing that much money. It also didn’t look as stunning as it does in photos. No doubting its beauty but it doesn’t have the same shock-and-awe some people want from a Lambo. A Countach or Diablo it is not. As for the Mclaren, well it did impress me with its stats and angry face but the rest of the car didn’t stir my emotions in the same way a Maserati, Ferrari, or even SLS AMG did. The Bentleys were nice and I’d probably prefer them if I were 30 years older but at the moment they’re a bit old-gentleman for my liking. Well, maybe that’d change if I heard the V8S come to life. But I think what I got out of this show the most was reminding me of why I loved Aston Martins so much before.

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They’re simply beautiful. They’re so elegant and effortless in the way they stand out. They don’t scream and they’re not in your face. There’s no doubting their flash cars but they’re not bling either. They’re exquisite, full of taste. Which is why the one I’d pick is the one with the black wheels, black boot trim, and four carbon-fibre grilles on the bonnet. The V12 Vantage S is my kind of car. Big 560bhp V12 engine in the front, a high-quality and luxurious interior in the middle, rear-wheel drive at the back, and wrapped in a knee-achingly pretty body. Funny that, I came to see two high-tech and modern supercars. I braved a Kiwi storm (or should I saw a Huracan) and went home in love with an old-fashioned British brute.

Space With Pace To Boot

2014 Skoda Octavia Combi vRS review

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There was a time in motoring history when Skodas were the butt of all jokes. I’m not old enough to remember any of them but we’ve all heard one at some point. The one I can remember off the top of my head is what do you call a convertible Skoda? A skip. Jokes and Skodas in the 1970s and 80s were a bit stale but along came the automotive giant that is Volkswagen. VW acquired Skoda in the 1990s after Communism fell in Eastern Europe. Since then Skoda has been on an uphill capitalist climb and hasn’t looked back.

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Many forget the progress Skoda has made over the past couple of decades. The focus has been on the rapid improvement of South Korean and more recently Chinese cars. Hyundai and Kia cars were laughably shocking in the 1990s but now car buyers are cross shopping them with Japanese and European rivals. In the same time Korean cars went from being a dog’s breakfast…. No bad metaphor. In the same time Korean cars went from being a bit crap to not being crap at all, Skoda did the same but without being under the limelight. And that’s sort of a precursor to what the Skoda I’ve been driving was like. While I’ve mentioned the Koreans, Hyundai and Kia actually produce cars in the Czech Republic. Coincidence? Well it could very well be but I think otherwise. That’s something to ponder.

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As first Skoda experiences go it doesn’t get any better than with the new Octavia vRS. This is the third-generation Octavia and is built on Volkswagen-Audi Group’s MQB platform. Yes, that very same MQB platform used by every small and mid-sized VAG car from the Mk7 Golf, to the new Audi A3 and TT. In my previous encounters with the MQB I’ve been impressed at how diverse each car can be despite sharing the same platform. The A3 and Golf, though very similar cars, feel quite different thanks to the different ways the chassis and suspension have been set up.

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It’s the same story with the Octavia vRS. Obviously this is a bigger car than the Golf and A3, in fact it’s closer in size to an A4, but you can feel the family connection. Not that that’s a bad thing, especially if it’s related to the Golf GTI. Yup, you read that right. This Skoda wagon is essentially a Golf GTI but with more space, kit, and for less money. Usually I’d save the price for later on in the review but the Octavia vRS’s pricing is so incredibly it needs to be said earlier. The range starts from $47,000 for a manual Liftback but the pick of the bunch is the TSI Combi with DSG as tested here and is priced from $51,500. That’s roughly $10,000 less than the equivalent GTI. But you’re getting so much car for so little money.

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I’ll go back to the equipment later but we have to talk about the space inside. The Octavia Combi vRS measures at 4680mm, which as I said earlier is roughly the same as an Audi A4. Or BMW 3-Series, or Mercedes-Benz C-Class. And those cars are a good $20,000 more. Keep that in mind. If you’ve been listening to the recent hit songs on the charts this year, a lot of it has to do with big butts. Well, the Octavia has the biggest boot-y of them all with a 610L capacity. Fold the rear seats down and that extends to a whopping 1740L. Practicality excites me, what can I say? I like big butts and I cannot lie. Honestly, if this thing could twerk it too could have a number one single. My Skoda don’t want none unless you got fun, hun. While it may not be the most fancy car out there, the Skoda makes up for it in value for money. If you can think of a car for this kind of cash that offers this much pace and space but with so few compromises, please let me know. But for now I can’t think of any. The fact of the matter is the Octavia is quite possibly the best value for money car of the century.

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Strangely, or rather, appropriately I saw a variety of animal creatures on my drive. Strange because I never usually see so many critters on my drives. They ranged from the wooly variety to bovine, pukekos and peacocks, to ducks and dogs. It somewhat appropriate because the vRS is very much a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If you like your cars to be as discreet and unassuming as a political leak then the Octavia vRS is for you. To most people this is just another mid-sized station wagon with a bright red paint job.

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Lurking underneath that station wagon body and bright red paint job is an absolute monster. Actually, because it’s a station wagon makes it all the more impressive. As it shares the same platform as the Golf GTI it is every bit as capable. No really, the way this thing is able to cover massive distance is hugely impressive – as huge as the space inside. Unlike most performance cars the vRS gives you a choice of fuel type. You can either have your performance wagon with a turbo petrol or turbo diesel. Unless you rack up a lot of mileage on your daily commute I’d suggest the turbo petrol every single time. I will never, ever tire of this brilliant 2.0-litre EA888 engine, it’s a gem. With 220bhp and 350NM of torque, the stats are identical to the GTI’s. It even makes the same wonderful noise. It is filtered through a speaker on the dash. I’m not sure how I feel about it but it does add so much to the driving experience. It’s not like it’s a slouch either. With a 0-100 km/h time of 6.9 seconds and a top speed of 240 km/h.

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I could rave on all day about this engine. The way it pulls from anywhere above 2000rpm, the mid-range punch from all those torques, and noises it makes are outstanding. But my favourite thing about this engine is how multi-talented it is. It can do all the hot sporty stuff very well but around town and on the motorway it goes quietens down and can even quite economical. Skoda claim 6.2L/100km. I didn’t get close to that but then I didn’t have it on Eco mode very much. Like the GTI, the vRS has selectable driving modes. This can be accessed via unassuming vRS button and then the desired mode can be chosen on the touchscreen. I say unassuming because the vRS is simply a grey button on the centre console, no glowing red orb thing or anything as bourgeois as that.

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There are four different modes to choose from; Normal, Sport, Eco, and Individual. Normal is quite self-explanatory. Sport adds weight to the electrically assisted steering, makes the engine even more responsive and amazing, and there’s a sense throughout the car of excitement. As if the car itself feels excited. Yes, Sport mode was definitely my favourite setting. Eco was good for town driving as the steering was light and it held power back meaning you couldn’t do power take offs unless you gave it a boot-full. Individual allows you to customise each setting for the engine, steering, cornering lights, and air conditioning.

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In Normal and Eco mode the vRS’s steering was light but still had a lot of feel. Responsive is the best word to describe it. Sport does add weight though I didn’t think it needed to. It does make the steering quicker which was nice but the extra weight felt a bit artificial and unnecessary as it was good enough in Normal. Usually when I drive a fast front-wheel drive car I take corners with extra caution as understeer isn’t something I’m particularly fond of. Understeer is right up there with vegetarian pizzas and Coke Zero among my pet peeves. But the vRS didn’t understeer but rather gave me more confidence to keep pushing it. If a performance car should do one thing well it should be that. It should give the driver confidence in himself and the car. That’s what impressed me about the GTI and it is also what impressed me with the vRS.

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Part of the virtually non-existent understeer is the clever XDS differential. I realise that sounds extremely geeky but the results have to be seen to be believed. It’s pretty much the same kind of diff reserved for the hottest of hot hatches. Basically, if you turn into a left hander the outside wheel (front right wheel) will want to push out because of all the powerrrr. The XDS negates this by sending extra power to the inside wheel (front left wheel). It feels like you’re on train tracks. As point and shoot cars go, this is pretty pointy and shooty. There’s so much grip. Even if you try to catch the system off guard it never lets go. It also reduces torque steer. For those that don’t know what torque steer is, I can’t really explain it either. Essentially it turns the steering wheel under acceleration. In the vRS you still do get torque steer but only on some instances. That’s because of all the power and torque. It still manages to spin the wheels too. So yes, it does make driving it very fun but also very safe. Couple that to the excellent steering and you can literally place the Octavia exactly where you want on the road. Who said speed wasn’t safe? Oh, speaking of which the brakes are fantastic. They work very well and have a lot of feel. They’re progressive which is good because they don’t catapult you towards the dash when you apply them.

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As if the praise couldn’t keep going, we get to the ride. My memory isn’t the best in the world but, and let’s whisper this, I felt the vRS had a more complacent ride than the GTI. The GTI was edging on too firm whereas the vRS was damn near perfect. Perhaps the bigger body and extra 100kgs did favours for the Octavia over the Golf. The test car was fitted with the stunning 19-inch ‘Xtreme’ alloys, a definite must-have option, and despite the larger wheels it still rode beautifully. The damping was spot on too. It’s not too isolated from the road that it makes you feel disconnected from the whole experience but it doesn’t crash and shake like other performance-orientated cars. You could literally take the whole family, kids and dogs, out for a weekend blast around some hills.

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As with the GTI and many other VAG products, the vRS comes with a brilliant DSG dual-clutch transmission. VAG’s system has to be the best I’ve experienced. In normal Drive it changes gears smoothy and intuitively. There’s no confusion with gears and is decisive. It is just a tad jerky at low speeds, especially coming off from a standstill. That could have something to do with the Stop/Start system. In most cars the engine shuts off when you’ve come to a complete stop and have your foot on the brake. However in the vRS you have to touch the accelerator to get the engine started again and then it sort of lurches on take off. I’m used to Stop/Start systems moving the car as soon as you take your foot off the brake. As with other DSGs it is a bit delayed in responsiveness around town. But all this can be solved by simply selecting Sport mode. In Sport mode it blips on the downshifts and is has responsive and quick changes in manual. I used the paddle shifters for manual mode all the time as the Skoda had the wrong +/- placement on the gearstick. Renault and BMW/MINI seem to be the only ones who do it correctly by having ‘-‘ up and ‘+’ down.

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Inside it’s design is quite simple and straightforward, if not a bit unimaginative. That’s not to say it’s as well equipped in there as a monastery, there’s still a lot of kit. Most of it is just hidden away. Minimalistic is the key word here. There’s no fuss, no unnecessary bits added on. It’s just an interior and does its job very well. The quality of the interior is superb and right up there with the class best. Which class is to be decided thought because the price suggests a Mazda3/Ford Focus rival but the size and kit suggests a sort of Mazda6/Mondeo rival. Anyway, the use of soft touch materials, chrome accents, black piano trim on the centre console and faux-carbon trim everywhere else give it a posher look and feel than it’s Skoda badge would suggest. For a car of this price, the quality is really something else. I now understand why Skodas always rank high up in customer satisfaction surveys in Europe. I would be very satisfied with owning a Skoda, especially with all the kit you get as standard.

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As you’d expect, the vRS comes packed with every piece of equipment imaginable as standard. Some highlights include bi-xenon headlights with daytime running lights, LED taillights, an electric operated tailgate, 8-inch touchscreen with sat-nav, bluetooth phone and audio streaming, iPod connectivity, front and rear parking sensors with on-screen guidance, climate control, chilled glovebox, and 18-inch alloys. The Octavia vRS does have some options but most of these you can live without. Panoramic sunroof or adaptive cruise control anyone? Yeah didn’t think so. I don’t think I’ve driven a car where none of the options have really appealed to me as the standard kit is more than generous. The only thing I’d add are those 19-inch ‘Xtreme’ wheels purely for cosmetic reasons.

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One gripe I had with the GTI was the small 5-inch screen. Oh it looked fine and was easy to use but everything seemed a bit crammed in. It displayed a lot of info, which took up a lot of the screen’s property. The bigger 8-inch screen in the Octavia was much better. Not only does it look nicer and more premium, it was also a lot easier to read. It still has the cool motion sensitive buttons too, which never gets boring. As with everything else in the Octavia, the controls and operations are easy to use. Anyone could literally jump in and within minutes be able to familiarise themselves with the infotainment system. Pairing your phone via Bluetooth was quick, easy, and stress-free. Once you’ve done that you can make calls, stream music, and bring up your contacts on the display screen. The system is the same as other VWs meaning if you’re coming from a VW you’ll be able to use it easily. Or looking at it the other way, if you’re coming into the world of VAG for the first time you’ll find the infotainment screen as easy as pie.

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The standard fit sound system was quite impressive too. The sound that comes out was nice and crisp but the way it somehow managed to amplify sound throughout the massive cabin was beyond belief. It’s a lot of space to cover. Really if there was one lasting impression the Octavia vRS had on me, apart from the way it drove and the incredible value it represents, is the amount of space there is inside. Up front you get decent cubby spaces and lots of adjustment for the front seats and steering wheel. Don’t expect electric power seats though. While it may not have electric seats, it does have some fantastic sports seats. They’re quite comfortable and have good side bolstering to keep you in place when going hard around a corner. The part-leather seats have a bit of red on them too. Anyone who knows me knows I am a sucker for stripes and anything red on seats so it’s no surprise I loved the look of the vRS’s seats. As for the steering wheel, well that’s trimmed in leather too and had red stitching. I like. It’s an old-fashioned round shape too, no squared off bottom. It was nice to hold and felt comfortable in my hands but the grip was a bit odd. Mixing sports with practicality, Skoda has given the Octavia some niftly little touches such as a ticket holder on the windscreen. That’s a very small and insignificant thing but also very ingenious. In the back you have more head and legroom than cars costing twice as much as this. Then there’s boot. I’ve said earlier how big the boot was, and it is massive. But there’s more to it than that too. For example, you have a two-sided boot floor. where one side is carpet and the other is rubber for when you need to carry dirty items. Like a dog or a bicycle.

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Skoda have a sort of underdog image. Not many people recognise them on the road and there’s still a Soviet block idea about them if you mention them in conversation. But looking at this new Octavia vRS you wouldn’t be able to make any connections with Skodas of old. It looks great. I love the understated look of it and the chrome touches really adds a touch of class to it. The vRS bumpers give it an aggressive look without shouting about it. Making a real Jekyll and Hyde car. The cheeky little boot spoiler and twin chrome exhaust tips finish off the sporty look round the back. If you got one in silver or black and de-badged it, it could be a serious contender as being one of the world’s best sleeper cars. Overall though I’m a fan of the the Octavia vRS’s look. There’s a whiff of Audi A4 B6 about it somehow. Just me? Hmm..

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Volkswagen group cars are a bit complex. You have Audi at the premium end of the market catering for those who want to show off. VW, the people’s cars, have slowly tried to creep their way up bridging between mainstream and premium. A bit like in the Alfa/Volvo segment. Then there’s Skoda which are priced similar to VWs but offer more space and equipment. So Skoda deal with all those Korean and Japanese cars. Think of it like this: Audi drivers want to show off, VW drivers want a stylish and discreet car but only want to be noticed occasionally. Skoda drivers don’t care about image or showing off. They want a good car and for that reason I think they’re very cool. I don’t know if this was intentional, if so it’s very clever marketing. You do see a few Skodas around but not nearly as much as VWs or Audis which means Skoda drivers don’t get stereotyped, hence the comparison before.

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Think about the price difference again. Like for like that’s $15k less for a lot more car and it doesn’t feel like $15k less car. Sure, the Octavia is perhaps 99% as brilliant as the GTI but it didn’t put a smile on my face as quickly or made me giggle like the GTI. Some of the GTI’s spark and magic seems to have gotten lost in that massive interior of the Octavia’s. You only really notice it when you’re hammering it around an empty hill road. And when you look at the $15k you’ve saved that’ll undoubtedly make you smile even more. That’s a huge amount of money, and you really have to ask yourself is the GTI badge worth $15k more? Prior to driving the vRS I would’ve said yes but now? Well it’s certainly made me think twice about my claim as the GTI being the best all rounder. Imagine what you could do with $15k in your back pocket? You could could have a family trip to Disneyland. Doesn’t matter which one. You could go to all of them. If you’re in the market for a spacious family car that can do it all; handsome looks, carry kids, dogs, handle the daily commute, rides well, relatively economical, massively practical, packed to the rafters with equipment, and drives like a Golf GTI then there’s only one obvious choice: the Octavia Combi vRS. Get your Czech books out!

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Verdict: 9/10
Pros: Understated image, handsome looks, enjoyable handling, mind blowing real world performance, DSG, acres of space, practicality, generous equipment levels, ease of use, best value for money car on the market…. Everything the GTI does but with a bigger boot, more kit, and for 15k less.
Cons: There’s something intangible missing. It doesn’t have the same spark as the GTI, small wing mirrors, no Tartan seats(!! Maybe that’s the missing piece?)
The Skoda Octavia Combi vRS ticks all the right boxes and is easily the best value car on sale at the moment.

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