Jeremy Walton drives some of the more significant cars to appear from the Autumnal debuts and looks at the static presentation of the Lotus Elan at Hethel.
Any month that allows the privileges of driving the magnificent Mercedes 500 SL in RHD and the “85, new” Porsche 911 Carrera 2 is likely to be savoured for years to come. When the month also includes Rover motoring in the form of Discovery and the latest 200 Honda collaboration series, Plus new edition of the popular (10,000 orders, in advance) Ford Fiesta XR2 and a chance to view the apparent heresy of a front drive Lotus Elan, then it at least deserves recalling in print.
Initially, Mercedes-Benz United Kingdom at Milton Keynes will sell only the 326 bhp 500 SL at £58,045. The 32v V8 will be followed by similarly restricted supplies of the six cylinder in 190 bhp guise at £42,130 or with 4v per cyl in the 300 SL-24 at £46,270 for 231 bhp. Claimed maximums are 138, 143 and an electronically limited 155 mph.
Obtaining a RHD vehicle is particularly tough as only 1200 SL coupes a year are destined for the UK. Currently British Mercedes dealers are told not to take orders — a situation that also applies to the midengined Honda NS-X and Ferrari 348, whilst 911 Carrera 4 lists also stretch into years.
The SL specification was reported in detail in April and June on earlier LHD outings, so I will just recap on some primary features that contributed to a pleasurable two days in company with a RHD example in hard and soft top form. Obvious quality and civilisation are the key attributes to the 5000 SL. There is nothing particularly startling about the front engine, rear drive layout, but every detail is so thoroughly executed that the lengthy waiting lists and eye-watering prices become comprehensible. The grey paint of the test cars and their “machined from a solid steel billet” is at its best in hardtop form, for the interior of the cornplex automatic power hood is not so finely lined and detailed as some cheaper convertibles; there are stray rods and hoops that look crude in comparison with the rest of the car.
However the automatic hood, up or down, works well on a one button command and there is the reassurance of the swift, G-sensitive, roll over bar. We drove one day on the Franco-Swiss borders with the hood down — and paid with a week-long head cold — and that activity highlighted the important absence of an anti-buffeting “net” which is usually secured via the roll-over hoop. Such breezy motoring, occasionally mildly exercising the muscular V8 to a lazy 100 mph and 3500 rpm, also emphasised what a successful job Mercedes made of body strength versus the comparatively floppy Jaguar V12 convertible.
The cabin is particularly biased to making a stranger feel in command, rapidly. The steering and seat have electrical assistance to adjust in every useful plane, and the seats are specialised cocoons that also carry the seat belts. Driven towards the edge of D40 Dunlop SP 225/55 ZR 16 adhesion, the Mercedes remained an obedient servant, brakes remaining solid in action and complemented by informally, power steering. Acceleration between corners is definitely worthy of the “vivid” adjective, the automatic transmission conquering 0-60 mph in some six seconds. Until we drove the Porsche Tiptronic (see next item) this was the most cooperative automatic we had encountered for harder motoring, and the gear change quality still ranks far above the industry average.
Of course there are things wrong with these hefty automobiles (nearly 3900 lbs in 500 S1 guise), but as a durable blend between urbane manners, restrained style and sporting zeal the 500 SL remains the standard by which others will be judged.
For Motor Sport readers, I would suspect the £41,504.94p Porsche 911 Carrera 2 is an even more important sporting standard bearer. Porsche do not pander to the informal Mercedes-BMW maximum speed restriction of 155 mph, so the “new” 911 is allowed to reach an unfettered 161 mph (slightly beyond the 6600 rpm redline), whilst the notably deepened and quieted fiat-six soars to the highest American speed limit of 65 in second gear, passing 0-62.5 mph in a scant 5.7 seconds.
The Carrera 2 carries important advances over the previous 231 bhp/3.2 litre 911s in superior aerodynamics, electronically effective ABS anti-lock braking and the 3.6 litre/250 bhp version of the fabled flat-six now ignites courtesy of twin spark plus per cylinder; a four valve per cylinder head remains on the “competition only” shelf for future increases. Passed over from competition to (heavily modified) street use is the automatic Tiptronic transmission, but this is not the 5-speed PDK (Porsche Double Clutch) unit of 962 in Group C or Audi in Group B, but a 4-speed, planetary gear unit with torque convertor and computer management.
We drove both manual 5-speed and Tiptronic Carrera 2 models in Germany and could draw two immediate conclusions: the manual, now with a lighter gearchange action that loses no precision, still gives a sporting driver unique satisfaction and ultimate control; the Tiptronic is the best suited to sporting needs that we have ever encountered.
As in a Jaguar “J-handle” there are two automatic transmission gates. The ZF unit with Bosch-Porsche electronics shifts quietly amongst a conventional “PRND321” gate, or via “N” or “D” you can slip across to a simple “+ M — ” parallel. Even in the straight automatic mode it is an exceptional cooperative transmission, one that adapts to your driving style electronically to shift gearchange points, according to your prevailing driving pattern. Each gear can also be locked into place and retained, so what is the attraction of the second gate?
Simply that you flip (that is what the “Tip” section of the name means in German) forward for higher ratios and back for lower, swift selections made in the straightline logic that motorcyclists will find particularly attractive. Admitting that future developments were likely to include extra forward ratios. Weissach senior engineer Paul Henning coincidentally high-lighted the Triptonic’s biggest failing in sports operation. Even with a 3.6 litre unit, developing 228 lb ft of torque at 4800 rpm, there are largish gaps in the 4-speed ratios. In fast German autobahn useage you note that the 3-4 change often accounts for more than 1200 rpm; for the first time in a 911, I found a need for for extra uphill speed in the wet and could not get exactly the response that a manual model delivered on the same stretch. A minor niggle is that the electronics of Tiptronic are tea tonically correct in protecting first gear, or any other shift where there might be a danger of overrevving. Normally, this simply means an engine-saving upward shift of the usual stunning excellence at the inspiring 6600 redline, but when you are trying to get 1st to engage whilst entering a junction, you are better off in a manual selection on the auto gate, rather than trying to persuade mulish Tiptronic that it really is safe to change down now.
The subject of 911 handling has attracted plenty of past attention, but now the “white knuckle factor” has been considerably reduced. Even in sodden German conditions the Tiptronic example could be braked to the apex of a corner without the rear taking over proceedings, whilst the manual example tackled a streamming wet A-class downhill sector, full of sweeping third and fourth gear curves, with Bridgestone RE 71 security. Even the T-junction at the bottom of the hill failed to upset this Carrera 2, for ABS acts on any tendency for the comparatively lightly laden front end to lock its wheels: of the 2970 lb (high, by 911 standards) kerb weight, 61% is concentrated aft.
Our only serious reservations about the handling today concern the rather dead feel of the accurate rack and pinion (not so bad in the 4×4 example, which has more weight over the front axle), and the sheer amount of understeer that has to be overcome before neutrality and final oversteer can be prompted. There are other disappointing niggles outside the handling, such as the poor cockpit layout, the ease with which the small screen mists without air conditioning and a rocky, nervous, ride below 35 mph, but nothing seriously to inhibit purchase.
We have had an influx of British designs in the £40,000 area of late, such as 264 bhp Chargecooled Esprit, 204 bhp Panther Solo, and (beyond £45,000) the 6-litre Jaguar Sport XJR-S. Does the 911 in traditional rear drive — albeit wrapped in the same 0.32 Cd body as the almost unobtainable £47,699 Carrera 4×4 — match up to the latest British models, never mind the pending arrival of a £30,000 twin turbo Nissan 300 ZX? I think it does: the quality, practicality and sheer pleasure does the job with unique character carefully conserved. I would not be surprised to hear of a few more 911 regulars setting up new repeat order buying records: anyone out there beyond a full dozen?
The 1989 Rover offerings could not have been more different, £8775 to £10,940 buying one of the 214/216 co-operative Honda hatchbacks, or £15,750 the Land Rover Discovery in petrol (3.5 litre V8) or Turbo Diesel (2.5 litre inline 4) trim. Whilst the 5-door saloons were unremarkably competent, whether engined by Honda 1.6 litre or 1.4 litre Rover K16, the Discovery was exactly as its name implied, a complete revelation. Destined to compete in the Soviet Union Camel trophy of 1990, I chose the 2495cc TDi for a ramble around Northamptonshire and some illicit offroad activity. The bright blue plastics of the cabin were a bit disconcerting, but there is nothing to match the “Captain on the Bridge” driving position which — like so many basic construction aspects — is shared with the £20-£30,000 Range Rover.
The slightly long stroke (90.47 x 97mm) intercooled and injected diesel runs readily to 3500 rpm, developing maximum torque of 195 lb ft at just 1800 rpm. Peak power of the Rover developed and manufactured unit is at 4000 rpm and 111.3 bhp. That is enough to provide 92 mph and 0-60 mph in less than 17 seconds, perfectly sufficient to keep up with current traffic streams, and accompanied by a gratifying 30.5 Urban mpg. Contrast this with 13 Urban mpg for the 102 mph V8, and you may follow why I favour Turbo diesel in this case!
On the road the Discovery gains speeds with imposing ease and corners with more roll than most recent Range Rovers. Offroad it clambers easily over broken surfaces without jarring the driver in the manner of so many Japanese offroad machines. Against that obvious capability, the low cost Range Rover has a lengthy options list and I cannot see many being delivered without the £900 “Special Value Pack” which covers items like electric front window operation, central locking, roller blind luggage cover and double sun roof panels. The Discovery always feels capable of ascending the next obstacle, and I thoroughly enjoyed my hour in its company. If I had another £5750 in my personal estate cum 4×4 budget, the Discovery would be a natural choice.
Finally, on the driving side, was the £9,995 Fiesta XR2i. As the initial implies, this was the fuel injected 110 bhp (or 104 bhp with an extra cost catalyst for the truly green amongst us) successor to the enormously popular XR2 of 96 bhp. Ford say we can expect 119 mph, 28.5 Urban mpg and 0-60 mph in 9 seconds and independent tests have proved these predictions at least accurate.
Initial impressions must be dominated by how much you like the rather dated “body kit” appearance, but within, the fit and finish are above average for a current mass producer. The crescent patterned instruments, including a 140 mph speedometer and 7000 rpm tachometer (redlined at 6500), are models of clarity. Standard equipment embraces central locking, electric front windows and a sun roof, but alloy wheels are a £200 extra, along with the historically contradictory current Ford policy of making one pay £130 for black paint.
As you would expect, it is a delightfully simple car to drive. An Escort length wheelbase and generous track contribute to failsafe handling that also benefits from stiffened suspension — especially at the rear, where spring rates are increased 36%. Unfortunately the gearing of the rack and pinion steering is not altered, remaining at a rather ponderous 4.2 turns lock-to-lock to ease the Fiesta into a supermarket parking bay with minimal effort.
Performance between the 2800 rpm torque peak and 5000 rpm is exemplary in supplying encouraging journey times and disproportionate pleasure to the price tag. Beyond 5500 rpm the dreaded Ford CVH resonances seem to excite every body panel and the performance/pleasure balance fades; you have to have a very pressing reason to want to drive it regularly in the 6000 rpm peak power band. The ventilated front disc brakes and drum rears are certainly capable of containing the performance supplied, but I was not convinced about the £400 option of mechanical-hydraulic anti-lock braking. It just acts too slowly to impress, or maybe we have all been spoilt by messrs Bosch und Teves with their electronic wizardry? JW