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Friday, August 25, 2006

KLIMS 2006

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Nissan Note

Another advantage of the family-sized Note is that it doesn't remotely resemble a van. In fact, it's pleasantly styled to the point of looking quite sporty with its Murano-style grille stretching from headlight to headlight, low roof - clever packaging ensuring nearly as much headroom as in a Vauxhall Meriva - and a surprisingly distinctive rear end largely due to boomerang-like tail light clusters that reach forward along the roof.

If you think family cars have to be sedate and boring, you'll find yourself in for a treat when you take a Note on a test drive. Around town, it's downright nimble and, out on the open road, its well-honed chassis dynamics ensure a remarkably sporty feel.

Corners can be tackled with abandon, the ride remains flat and assured and the steering - overly light in the diesel and maybe just a tad heavy in the petrol 1.6 - still manages to make your time behind the wheel more fun than in most family cars.

Starting off in the diesel, powered by the vibrant little 1.5 dCi unit from the Renault stable, my only concern was that it felt slightly undergeared at higher speeds. There was no great diesel shove but acceleration was more than adequate.

Where the Note broke with my own beliefs was with the 1.6-litre petrol unit as that was the one that really came alive in a way I hadn't expected. I usually opt for diesels these days but not with this one. The 1.6 felt so good to drive it made me want to press on, which I did because I didn't have the family on board; but, again, a higher top gear would have made high speeds less fussy. Surely between them, Nissan and Renault can come up with a six-speed gearbox without it costing them too much?

Prices are all-important when young families are targeted and, while there are cheaper runarounds, the Note's accommodation and standard equipment, blended with its visual and practical attractions, suggest it's going to look competitive when compared to rivals.

For five pounds less than £10,000, you get a 1.4-litre, 87bhp petrol engine and base S-level trim, with anti-lock brakes, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, a quartet of airbags, front electric windows, a CD player, remote central locking, flat reclining front passenger seat, what Nissan refers to as a "friendly" lighting system, that enormous nine-litre glovebox, passenger airbag cut-off switch, Isofix child seat mountings and the sliding rear seat. Do families on the move need more?

Maybe air-conditioning, but that can be added for just £600. All in all, if it's decent-looking, versatile and excuse-proof family transport you're after, it's yours for less than five figures.

With additional equipment and more powerful engines, Note prices rise to £13,395, but for that you also get automatic transmission should you feel the need. You might, as the manual is just a shade clunky, but that and rear drum brakes appear to be the only concessions Nissan has made to keeping the cost down.

But do you really need to be a family to be attracted to the Note? I don’t think so. A small, inexpensive to run five-door hatch that can carry three across the back or, with the seats folded, provide an above-average load volume for its class, is surely certain to appeal to older folk too. It's not a lifestyle vehicle but, instead, one that fits easily into people's own lifestyles, and that has to be an attraction.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

First Drive: Mercedes E63 AMG

E63 AMG? No, it can’t have, can it? Oh yes it can – 6.3 snarling, big-block litres of V8 muscle, somehow shoehorned in the space where you can also find a 1.8-litre four-pot.

The old E 55 AMG was no pussycat – 5.4-litres, supercharged, boasting a pretty substantial 476bhp. But the German engineers at Mercedes division AMG don’t know the meaning of ‘that’s enough’.

They’d probably try to increase the effect of the earth’s gravitational pull, given half a chance. So when asked to give the AMG range-topper a little makeover, to head the facelifted range, they went away and, within the constraints of an engineer’s restraint, went mad. People living near the workshop felt the rumblings in the ground, breathed deeply… eventually sighing with relief only when the factory doors rolled back gently, rather than being blown off.

Squinting into the darkness, they would have spotted a beefier E-Class. All the AMG cues are there: the requisite huge exhausts, bulging track and fag paper thin gaps in the wheelarches. Impossibly cool 19-inch titanium-coloured wheels, too. But new, more obvious features are now present, such as the shark’s fin vents on the side of the front bumper (don’t tell them Peugeot already has them on the 407 Coupe). They’ve even fitted badges to the side, proudly shouting ‘6.3 AMG’. All quite exciting, but then it would start up: and children would cower and start to cry. A crack of lightning, a roll of thunder? No, the E-Class, Xenons flickering, exhausts bellowing to life.

Come on, feel the noise
Roll into the sunlight and those children would have long since fled – for the noise continues. This, the rumbling, burbling exhausts that shout to every movement of the throttle, is the first remarkable aspect of the E63. The old car was a bit shy, slightly reticent – but not this beast. The interior underlines this with bulging, bolstered seats, a thick steering wheel and AMG-specific detailing. Even the auto ‘box now has thick metal paddle-shifters behind the steering wheel, while dive into the trip computer and you’ll find means for measuring tyre pressures, oil temperature, battery voltage.

But don’t. Blip the throttle instead. WHAM! The rev counter shoots round in electric response to your right foot. This is the antithesis of Mercedes’ usual long-travel throttles. That’s why your writer, when he drove it first, had the ESP light flashing before he’d even left the car park. Had he been foolish enough to turn it off, you’d still see the cloud of tyre smoke, somewhere in Hampshire. It was so thrilling, he almost failed to notice the brutal, F1-fast brace of automatic gearchanges, the way the noise filters through even with windows shut, the surprisingly accomplished ride.

Right. Straight road. Boot it. Know the terror when you turn on the car stereo and it blasts out the previous night’s mega-loud thrash metal? That’s similar terror felt by pedestrians when I mashed the E 63’s metal throttle pedal for the first time. There’s no word for it other than in-car NASCAR. And the acceleration? Best not mention the expletives I used. This is a monster, a demon of a car, taking off like somebody’s lit a rocket on the roof; by the time the electrified terror has passed, and your senses reemerge, your speed will be enough to stun any magistrate in the land.

Numbers game
514bhp, 464lb/ft, 62mph in 4.5 seconds. The effect: hardcore. The gears change impossibly fast, with a brutality Mercedes would never accept, while the throttle response and rate of acceleration is searing at any speed, legal or otherwise, in the UK. Even on the motorway, people will hear you coming as you press on (but usually, dangerously, still fail to compute your rate of acceleration). The whole experience grabs you and grips you as totally as the monster anchors. You’ll be left breathless. But not, note, because of an intolerable ride. This, you slowly realise, is another startling aspect of the E63: it rides almost as well as an E200K Classic.

Sure, the damping is firm and the tyres will sometimes bump over an expansion joint. But there’s no jostling or banging or crashing, and on a country road it’ll flow with near-exec comfort. It handles too, with quick-fire turn in and flat cornering to differing degrees, depending on what setting you choose for the air suspension. OK, the steering is a bit light and hazy straight-ahead, but for such a big car with such a monstrous power output, it has more delicacy and threadability than you’d ever think.

It’s a massively attractive prospect – E-Class practicality and comfort, with the character of a wild engine, cracking gearbox (the same seven-speeder that Mercedes rarely gets to work right) and all-enveloping exhaust noise. The downsides are the £68k list price and 19.8mpg combined economy, but take our word for it; this will get far more admiring glances than the comparable Porsche it’s quicker than. Even better, you can get it in estate form, to reconfigure the dog’s internals, or smash up 1,950 litres of shopping. 63? Sounds like the number of stars out of five we’d award this mad, mad machine.