When our features editor suggested we take a look back at highlights of 2019, I couldn’t wait to start hitting the keyboard. It’s good to feel this way, for it means there’s still a lot of fun to be had in motoring.
The car industry is going through a tough time; it needs to respond to demand, a challenge made even harder by complex, ever restricting legislation. Not least in our case amidst Brexit, in the sense of how much you should charge for a new car order for a car built in Europe, before you know if we’ll be ‘in’ or ‘out’. Against this complex puzzle, manufacturers must produce cars people want to buy, meeting a massively complex and varied set of personal needs and preferences. That alone is the reason why there are so many engine and spec variants of each new model.
Speed is out
Speed for example, is no longer the ‘in’ thing. Performance car sales have dropped dramatically over recent years. When you have brands like Lamborghini, Aston Martin and Ferrari introducing SUVs, there has to be a compelling reason; it’s called survival. That said, Ferrari are one of the few brands which make proper money selling super and hyper cars, but even they see the business case for SUVs and electric power. Then of course, there is the matter of your driving licence combined with the fact that Britain is the speed camera capital of Europe. Enthusiasts are thus finding solace in sporting runabouts such as the Ford Fiesta ST, Suzuki Swifts, Polo GTI’s and the like, where you can have good economical fun, do the odd track day, and stay out of prison.
Yet there was indeed fun to be had this year, and much of it in cars which are the price of many people’s homes. So, as this is all about the year’s highlights, please allow us the indulgence of sharing the true enjoyment of motoring with you, without having to worry about the bills or the bank balance, just having fun. You only live twice after all, once when you buy the car of your dreams and second, when you enjoy it afterwards…
UK to Aachen in a BMW Schnitzer
Every once in a while, a motoring scribbler gets a golden invitation you simply cannot turn down. One such offer came our way earlier in the year, when the Schnitzer dealer and sports car specialist Renaissance Classic Sports cars, asked us if we’d be happy to test drive the new M140 M Conversion from the UK up to Schnitzer’s headquarters in Aachen, Germany. Of course, it was a no brainer.
Schnitzer are top BMW and Mini Performance tuning specialists, founded in 1987 by Willi Kohl and Herbert Schnitzer and based in Aachen, Germany. The car we drove and featured in these pages was the BMW M140i. Given the full Schnitzer treatment, this is how the performance of the two cars compare:
Typical comparison Standard BMW M140 Schnitzer Conversion
Engine 3.0 litre straight six
Power 335bhp 400bhp
0-62 mph 4.6 secs 4.3 secs
Torque 368lb/ft 443lb/ft
Top Speed 155 mph (limited)
Price Circa £31,000
(when in production) Approx. £11,000 in extra for full conversion
Add suspension tuning and exhaust mods to the Schnitzer and you have one ‘halva’ car! What’s more, we had one hell of a trip too. A good 800 miles with some great driving, the challenging country roads around the famous Spa Circuit proving absolutely fit for purpose. If you ever want a proper all-round conversion on your BM, you can’t go far wrong with a full Schnitzer conversion.
Driving the new McLaren 600LT on the Hungaroring race circuit
Not long ago, at the tail end of 2018, we fell in love with the McLaren 720S which I still maintain is one of the best supercars on the planet. Getting an invite to drive the 600LT at the Hungaroring was just another one of those pinch yourself moments. The 720S is ‘the peoples McLaren’. As long as you can afford it, it’s a doddle to drive and as to how far you care to push that privilege, it depends on basic common sense and self-preservation, in that order.
The McLaren 600LT is a more serious proposition to the driver. It is God’s gift to the driving enthusiast and as such, is rather unforgiving. It will lose the back end if you push it just that little too hard, but it was indeed designed to do so. Never does it get untidy, but rather prefers to take the driver on a helter-skelter ride of excitement and thrills. The trick is to keep it from sliding and control it at the amazingly high speeds which it is capable of.
The 600LT has the most incredible steering, pin-point accurate and full of feel; you just have to be a better than the average driver to really exploit it. If you can’t, then its track focus suggests you’re better off with a 720. That said, the driver challenge is so enticing that you’d want to make yourself a good enough driver to really exploit its potential. I concluded that I’d only buy a 600LT if my life allowed for at least half a dozen serious track days a year, which would be the equivalent of going to heaven and living happily with God for the rest of my life.
Hot Cross-Country driving in the new Bentley Continental GT
The latest Bentley Continental GT is a bit like Lewis Hamilton – at its peak. Never has the Conti GT been so good. Every aspect of this car is special; the interior, the beautifully assembled bodywork, the smooth feel of the paint to the back of your hand, and not least that amazing W12 engine (it comes in V8 too). This is the car that has everything. If it was a human you’d be in love, besotted.
No longer is the new Conti GT a pretend 4- seater, it is now a proper comfort zone for four adults, with boot space too. We wanted to find out if it was more than an exquisitely crafted urban cruiser by putting it amongst the company of some very tasty motors; a Lambo Huracan Performante, a BMW M4, a BMW M6, an Aston Vantage and a Mustang V8 for good measure. We even had a nice classic Integra Type R along for the ride, and oh what a time we had on some of North Wales finest tarmac. Amongst such grand and varied company, the Bentley was the best all-rounder of the bunch. It didn’t need the Performant’s ultimate speed, yet the Continental’s four wheel drive set up, allowed it to cope easily with all conditions including severe mud and flooding in some parts.
We walked away from this 500-mile test concluding that the new Bentley Continental GT has to be one of the best, if not the best luxury GT Tourer in the World. It is sublimely comfortable over many hundreds of miles for drivers and passengers alike, allowing you to arrive totally unfatigued, along with an optional Naim for Bentley music system that indeed justifies its £8000 price tag. This is much more than a better car than its predecessor; it is completely transformed and an unforgettable driving experience putting it high in our great car bucket list this year.
Six Ferraris to Le Mans
We’ve saved the best ‘til last, driving not one, but six of the latest Ferraris’ to Le Mans. Another ‘pinch yourself’ adventure, one I was no less excited about than the first time I ever drove a Ferrari some 30 years ago. Can you imagine a convoy of the Ferrari Pista, the 812 Superfast, two Portofinos, a V8 and V12 Lusso! Heaven on 24 wheels.
We shared company with the Top Gear magazine guys, the Car Throttle YouTube channel and others. First up was the Pista for the big trek to Le Mans in the wet – making it all the more exciting, whereas the Top Gear guys had to tip-toe in the 800 bhp Superfast; too much power for the rain then? or just light-weights!
Aside from the racing, it was actually more fun testing the cars. Driving the 812 – in the dry this time – back to back with the Pista made for very exciting footage. In my view, the Pista is one of the best Ferraris’ ever made, but believe me, the 812 is on another level when it comes to both speed and power. That memory will live with me for the rest of my life; astonishing, irresistible and what a noise!
A relaxed drive back home in the Portofino proved surprisingly rewarding. This one doubles up as a day to day Ferrari and intercontinental cruiser and doesn’t disappoint in any way. It might be the cheapest price point, but the Portofino responded to any challenge its more powerful siblings in convoy presented, proving again and again that it is a true Ferrari in every sense of the legendary name. As many of us scribblers say, it is the car which maybe its predecessor the California should have been, but time has moved on and the Portofino is now another jewel in the Ferrari Crown. Driving all of these wonderful Italian Stallions was the ultimate highlight of our year. Bring on 2020!