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Rakish BMW goes it alone

BMW has released images of its new 4-series concept. 4-series? That’s the new name for what has always in the past been known as the 3-series coupe, and while BMW is calling the car a concept, it’s fooling no one. In all bar the fine detail, this is the car that will go on sale in the autumn, filling precisely the boots of the now defunct 3-series coupe.

The change in strategy is for two reasons. First and in line with current thinking, BMW wants to expand the number of different cars that can be spun off one platform and it allows both greater clarity and a sense of additional prestige if the glamour models — the coupes and convertibles — have an identity of their own. Secondly, BMW has decided to put far more conceptual air between 4-series and the four-door 3-series than in previous generations, and would argue therefore that the 4-series deserves to be thought of as a model in its own right.

Certainly the facts seem to support this. The 4-series shares no major panels with the 3-series and is longer, wider and significantly lower than its four-door stablemate. Underneath, however, they are close cousins, utilising the same platform and, it is believed, power trains.

Inside the concept are lashings of wood and artfully stitched leather but this kind of detail is bound either to be moved to the options list or omitted altogether.

There will, of course, be an M4 version that is likely to take the bulk of sales away from what will now be the four-door-only M3, a choice that has always been of minority interest among M customers. Nevertheless it does free up space in the 3-series range for an M3 Touring estate, the one M-car many have called for but that BMW has to date resisted. Like all other M-cars these days, the new M3 and M4 will be powered by downsized turbocharged engines in place of once non-negotiable multi-cylinder units. In this case expect a twin-turbo 3-litre straight six with more power and torque than the outgoing 4-litre V8.

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Italian deal set to benefit Aston Martin

After weeks of press speculation, a substantial stake in Aston Martin has been sold to an Italian private equity fund called InvestIndustrial, best known as the former owner of Ducati motorcycles.

InvestIndustrial has paid £150 million for a 37.5 per cent stake in the company and four of the nine seats on the board. This deal is very different to that rumoured in recent weeks, which speculated that the Indian tractor company Mahindra & Mahindra was about to drop £250 million into Aston Martin in return for half of the company.

Although InvestIndustrial brings less money, the tie-up is attractive to Aston Martin because of its new partner’s connections in the motor industry. Aston Martin needs a long-term relationship with a major car maker in order to be able to access the technologies, economies of scale, facilities and purchasing clout it currently lacks, and Mercedes-Benz is the company thought most likely to assist. Not only has it links to InvestIndustrial and Aston Martin (its GL-class provided the structure for the 2009 Lagonda concept), but unlike its Audi and BMW rivals it is now without a ‘halo’ brand after closing its Maybach operation.

Kuwait-based Investment Dar remains the majority shareholder in Aston Martin.

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Cayman tops show in LA

The Porsche Cayman was undoubtedly the star of the Los Angeles Motor Show.

Lower, longer, wider and sitting on the extended wheelbase of the new Boxster, the 20kg lighter Cayman and Cayman S share their 2.7and 3.4-litre engines with the Boxster, but now tuned to give 275bhp and 325bhp respectively, a 10bhp rise over the Boxster’s outputs. Performance ranges from 5.7sec for a manual Cayman to reach 62mph to the 4.7sec for a Cayman S using the optional PDK double-clutch auto transmission. UK sales start this spring with the Cayman costing £39,694, the S £48,783, a rise of £477 and £1137 over the current cars.

Also making its public debut in Los Angeles was the Jaguar XFR-S, whose existence was one of the worst kept secrets of 2012. Powered by the same 542bhp supercharged V8 found in the XKR-S, it is easily the fastest saloon in the British marque’s history, topping out at an electronically controlled 186mph. Extensive retuning of the suspension means it is likely also to feel like the most sporting Jaguar saloon to date, though the firm’s bosses insist it remains an eminently usable and comfortable everyday car.

Sales of the XFR-S will start in May, priced at £79,995, a hefty premium of almost £15,000 over the already potent 503bhp XFR.

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Sporting list for COTY

By the time you get this, the shortlist for the 2013 Car of the Year award will have been announced.

This year’s selection of candidates includes an unusually large number of sports and sporting cars including the Toyota GT86, Porsche Boxster, MercedesBenz SL and BMW 3-series, though history tells us that none of these has very much chance of outright victory.

Of the 49 awards granted since its inception in 1964, Fiat has won nine, Renault six and Ford five. By contrast BMW has never won and has not even troubled the podium for 25 years. Surprising, then, that Porsche does have an award on the shelf, but seeing as it was given in 1978 for the 928, it will now be looking a little dusty.

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Audi sharpens super-estate

Anyone who experienced the previous Audi RS6 is unlikely to have lamented its lack of get up and go. Even so, and in the spirit of Vorsprung durch Technik, Audi has decided to take the world’s fastest estate and make it much, much faster.

At first the new R56 seems a step back: eight cylinders instead of 10 and a mere 552bhp instead of the 580bhp of its predecessor. However, because the car has a little more torque and, crucially, a lot less weight, it’s actually substantially quicker out of the blocks, reaching 62mph from rest in just 3.9sec. In the context of an estate car, that is about as ridiculous as it gets. Top speed is what you want it to be and what your wallet can cope with: 155mph is standard but cross Audi’s palm with enough silver and they’ll let it do 174mph. Keep handing it out and they’ll retune the management to extend play all the way to 190mph, which should be adequate for most tastes.

The engine is based on that used not only by the extant S6, S7 and S8, but also the Bentley Continental GT V8. As in all its other applications it is equipped with cylinder deactivation technology, one reason that it claims to use a staggering 30 per cent less fuel than the previous R56.

The old one was the ultimate blunt weapon — a straight-line projectile with little enthusiasm for changing direction. But it’s to be hoped that the 100kg weight chop and the broadly encouraging direction taken by recent Audi R and RS products will mean the R56 turns out to be not only the world’s fastest estate, but also an enjoyable and capable driver’s car too.

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‘Black’ plan is on her Mercedes SLS coupé

Proving that what it learns on the race track really does have at least some relevance to a few of the cars it sells in showrooms, Mercedes has announced details of the fifth ‘Black Series’ model, this time its focus falling on the SLS super car.

Taking not only inspiration but some of the concept and many actual components from its massively successful SLS GT3 racing car, the SLS Black features a 622bhp V8 based on the race car engine but far more powerful on account of not having to breathe through a restrictor. Many carbon-fibre parts including the transmission tunnel, rear bulkhead, bonnet, front spoiler, rear diffuser and wings contribute to a weight reduction of some 70kg compared to the regular SLS, though its top speed is actually 3mph lower, entirely because of the extra aerodynamic drag caused by the high-downforce bodywork.

In addition the transmission and suspension have both been modified to deal with the extra power, while carbon-ceramic brakes — outlawed on the SLS GT3 — are standard.

Like all Black Series cars, the SLS Black will exist as a limitededition standalone product, meaning Mercedes will produce no other Black Series models until production has ceased. Mercedes is not yet saying how many it will make, or indeed what it might charge for each one, though with the standard car retailing for £168,425, a price of about £250,000 (where it can meet both the Ferrari F12 and Lamborghini Aventador head-on) looks most likely.

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And that reminds me…

Surely everyone dreams of the record lap of the Targo Floria course…

Some things are so tempting, you’ll put up with serious compromises to do them. Being the wrong shape for the job, I usually emerge from track testing cars for this magazine bruised and sometimes bleeding. Who cares? Wounds heal, memories remain. Which is why doing a lap of the Targa Florio seemed a good idea even with my young family on board.

This misconceived plan wobbled further off course before we’d left the airport. Avis had promised a Ford Focus or similar’. We got a Fiat Stilo estate, probably my least favourite Italian car. I should have given up then, but once I’d found the pits at Cerda I was unable to stop.

I explained to the family how important this was, that from two weeks of holiday I was asking for two hours to do one 72km lap. I suggested they found coffee and chocolate while I indulged my pathetic fantasy in a hired estate, but it would not be countenanced. Even though they thought Vaccarella sounded like food poisoning, I was told their place was by my side, where they’d derive vicarious pleasure from watching my dream come true.

I shut out the first whimpers and early bleats from the back. I was too busy trying to understand how anyone could race around these hills, let alone complete a lap in little more than half an hour. But ‘Daddy, I’m going to be sick’ proved harder to ignore. I stopped to allow the children to inhale fresh mountain air before charging on, all 95bhp hauling four people, their luggage and a heavy Fiat uphill at speeds sometimes nearing 40mph.

Then my wife turned green and looked imploringly at me. Brian Redman didn’t have to put up with this. I pulled over again and when everyone felt able to continue, completed the lap at little more than walking pace. The whole circuit took a fraction less than four hours, an average speed with stops of just over 11mph. The slowest lap of the Targa Florio ever completed? Unless you know differently, that’s a record I’m claiming for myself.