My motoring month

904 and latest Toyota tech delights

My month was dominated by an unforgettable European jaunt. First stop was Spa for the Six Hours meeting. Equipe Frankel was licking its wounds after the Revival which saw two cars retired and a third in the tyres without a single lap completed, and at first Spa seemed to have little more to offer. In the fiercely competitive U2TC 2-litre tin-top race I sat out most of my stint under the safety car, we couldn’t do the Six Hours itself as last year’s Alfa GTAm was still recovering from the experience and the final event, the Masters two-hour Gentleman Driver race, was so wet that a large number of competitors headed for the door before the race even started.

As I had done a total of one flying lap in the Porsche 904 I was meant to be driving, I approached it for my hour at the wheel with some trepidation. In fact the car was a joy, the most fun thing I’ve raced in the wet, and the moment I overtook a helpless Bizzarrini and a flailing Cobra on the same lap will stay with me for a while.

From there it was off to Paris to drive the Lexus CT200h (page 111). It’s always interesting to talk to Toyota about what new pieces of tech they have up their sleeves, and their latest wheeze is to look at 3D mapping for navigation systems on its hybrid as a way of saving energy.

The proposition is deliciously straightforward: you plug in your destination in the normal way and the car optimises its use of the battery accordingly. So if you are chugging up a steep gradient but the car knows there’s a long downhill stretch at the top, it will allow greater than normal use of the electric motor knowing that the energy lost will be immediately recovered. It’s simple applications like this that give me hope, far more than theorising of what might transpire at some unspecified time in the future.

After Paris it was off to the ’Ring to meet the 2012 Nissan GT-R and thence to Hockenheim for a few laps in Mercedes’ new SLS GT3 car which is already proving extremely competitive despite being barely out of the box. Having driven it, it’s not hard to see why. But all that is for a future issue.

Are you still safe to drive? S-class knows best

My euro marathon concluded with a return to Paris for the motor show, and I was pleased that the car which took me on these travels was the F1 driver’s wheels du choix, a Mercedes S-class. Never has the flagship Merc’s position as the world’s finest mass-produced luxury car - a crown it has worn without challenge for more than the 22 years I’ve been doing this job - been more threatened. Cars like the Audi A8 and the Jaguar XJ still lack its awesome ride and refinement but offer more enticing looks inside and out.

But if you’re on a marathon, I still don’t think the big Benz can be topped. By the time I had returned home some 2500 miles had passed but seeing it there, ready to take me on the next journey and knowing there wasn’t a better tool for the job made the whole business easier.

Often four-up, often at whatever speed it would do on the autobahn, the diesel motor still managed 34mpg from start to finish while providing unrivalled comfort and quiet and never doing less than 600 miles on a tank. When you’ve a schedule like mine has been of late, that’s what matters most.

An interesting feature of the S-class I’ve been driving was that it included an extraordinary piece of technology whose presence you notice only by a small graphic of a cup of tea on the dashboard. But unbeknown to you, on a long drive it monitors your first 20 minutes behind the wheel and, using 70 different parameters, learns how you drive when you are fresh. It then uses this and other information, gleaned from how you turn the steering wheel, operate the pedals, how long you’ve been driving, whether it is light, dark, raining and so on, to work out when you’re still safe behind the wheel.

It has been available on upmarket Mercs for a while though I’ve never witnessed it working before, but at the end of my longest day which involved three different jobs in three locations hundreds of miles apart, I found myself being given a gentle visual reminder that it was probably time to call it a day. As it was dark, raining and I was lost in the middle of Paris at the time, I felt rather inclined to agree. The good news is that as of next spring, it will start to spread among Mercedes’ more affordable ranges.

The other pleasant surprise of the month was discovering how well Peugeot’s pretty RCZ coupé works on British roads. I’d been quite taken with it when I drove it in Northern Spain but often cars that have been optimised on Europe’s smoother surfaces fall to pieces in the UK. Not this one: it was taut, poised, quick and fun. Quite unlike most Peugeots, in fact.