Even to me, jaded and cynical as I may be, this felt like a working week that was utterly remote from the ordinary. In fact, it may have been my all-time favourite week in 25 years of writing about cars.
Neil Lyndon remembers the week that was.
The Kia Stinger GTS wasn’t entirely new to me. I had driven it briefly at a launch event earlier this year where I was hugely impressed; but the opportunity to spend a week with this luxury Grand Tourer and use it both as our main family transport and as my work donkey, carrying me to manufacturers’ launch events, provided an invaluable insight into the depths of the Stinger’s qualities and the extent of its abilities. This flagship four-door coupe is intended to encircle Kia’s name with a halo of desirability, presumably allowing them to push up prices as if they are getting closer to being a premium brand. Apart from its unspeakable name, it fulfils those tasks to perfection. How on earth could Kia be so tin-eared as to call this car “Stinger”? Has the news not spread to Seoul that few men in these times unabashedly suggest that there may be a connection between their cars and their phallic capabilities? Has nobody at Kia heard of #metoo and #timesup? God knows how many sales it will cost them, but I can’t think of a man I know who would be able to tell his wife/girlfriend he was thinking of buying something called “Stinger”. It would make you look like that undesirable outcome you get from a stinger that begins with pr and ends with ick. Not even this fabulous piece of work can get over a handicap that deep. I did wonder, however, if you might be able to lever off the letters with a screwdriver or cover them with tape.
Without that embarrassment, this car is a peach. A Kia at more than £40,000 may be hard to swallow, but anybody who is thinking of spending tens of thousands more on a Jaguar, an Audi or even a Bentley should consider the Stinger. It’s got all the performance, the comforts and the kit your heart could desire (though Bentley and Audi may retain a distinct edge in the interior stakes); and, on top of all that, it’s got profundities of engineering and build quality to which the others can hardly aspire. That seven-year Kia warranty exists for very sound reasons. The company knows its cars are not going to let the customers down. Try getting that assurance from any brand in the Volkswagen and JLR groups. Any brand. Of all the cars in my week, the Stinger had the least blazing performance being closer to a GT than a sports car; but it would be the one you would choose every time to live with. A genuine five-seater with masses of leg-room in the back and a gigantic boot, this is a car for family holidays as much as it is for cutting loose on empty back-roads when you have dropped the kids at school. I adored it.
The BMW i8 Roadster made me feel like a fool for having forgotten how much I adored the original i8. Not having driven this plug-in hybrid supercar since it was launched in 2014, the idolisation it had inspired in me had evaporated entirely. I had forgotten how instantaneously it made you feel that all high-performance cars up to that time were nothing more than relics of the dead past. I had forgotten its breathtaking punch of performance through the combination of its three-cylinder 1.5-litre turbodiesel and its two electric motors. I had forgotten how, when you look in the wing mirrors when you are accelerating flat out in the i8, the rear wings look like a space rocket blasting away from the launchpad. I had forgotten the rapturous quality of its interior finish. I had even forgotten that the thing runs on electric power from rest and wondered why I couldn’t get the engine to fire up when I pressed the Start button. I had also forgotten how the combination of the gullwing doors and the wide sills make this a car one that you can only get out of crawling like a lobster. Ladies in short skirts might want to change their attire.
My veneration all came back, however, when I was out on the road in the Roadster. Like all the supercars I most love (Honda NSX; Audi R8 V10; McLaren 570S), the BMW i8 is entirely docile and tractable at low speeds and could be managed by a learner without breaking a sweat when trickling through town in traffic. On open country roads, however, it calls upon and fully rewards all your capabilities as a driver – with brakes so powerful it feels as if an ox has leaned all its weight on the pedal, steering so fine that you can place the car to the inch and sumptuous suspension that both responds to and absorbs every input from road and driver. You always know that this all-wheel-drive masterpiece is capable of far more than you can draw from it as a driver but it’s never going to scare you unless you over-estimate yourself.
Read Neil’s original review of the BMW i8
Which is more than can be said for the £96205 BMW M5 Competition. Cor blimey! This car could make a complete fool of you in the first five minutes.
That twin-turbocharged 4.4-litre V8 with 616bhp and torque at 553lb ft is so knee-shakingly quick that I had to search my mind for the last time I had felt so close to getting the whole thing disastrously out of shape with an unforced error on country roads.
The answer that came to me eventually was the Mitsubishi Evo IX of nearly 20 years ago which was equally beyond my powers as a driver and didn’t hesitate to let me know.
The M Pack on this car raises the top speed from a limited 155mph to 190mph and cuts 0-60mph to a fraction under three seconds. Two orange M control buttons on the steering wheel ought to be marked “Go Mental” and “Go completely insane”. Press them at your peril.
The one on the left sharpens the set-up to about the capabilities of a better than average driver who fancies himself. The other disengages the front axle on the M Xdrive four-wheel drive set-up and switches off all traction controls. That’s the one for fully qualified race and rally drivers, not ordinary mortals like you and me, my son.
Six and a half thousand pounds-worth of changes go into sharpening the handling, lowering the ride height, stiffening the springs, recalibrating the dampers and altering the suspension geometry. Even so, the 5 Series remains a big sedan and the M Comp, therefore, becomes a rotund execmobile with the performance of a superbike. This is not entirely a restful combination on narrow country roads.
The new £34050 Honda Civic Type R is a more manageable handful. About half the size of the BMW M Comp and roughly half the power, with a mere 320 bhp and 400 Nm of torque, this almost housetrained mode of transport is still capable of 0-60 mph in about 5.5 seconds and has a top speed of 170 mph. Newly engineered from the ground up, the Type R recently set the fastest time ever by a front-wheel-drive car on the Nurburgring Nordschleife circuit and is undoubtedly the quickest hatchback that has been in my hands since the Volkswagen Golf R32. I would have to say that, in my week of weeks, it was merely the appetiser to the main dish of the day at Honda’s recent event in the Trossachs, which was the opportunity to drive not just one but three NSXs.
Honda had generously taken out of their garage one of the original three-litre NSXs from 1989 and the uprated 3.2-litre VTEC version from 2005 and had trucked them to Scotland alongside the latest model. With all its carbon fibre add-ons and trim (such as a “Carbon fibre engine cover) at £2900), that new NSX ran out at a total of £180,250.
Whenever anybody has asked me in the last 25 years which is my favourite of all the thousands of cars I have driven, I have always and immediately answered “Honda’s NSX”.
I loved it for the having been developed with suggestions and guidance from Ayrton Senna who was then driving for Honda-powered McLaren. I loved it for the nappy-bursting fright it gave to those complacent Italians and Germans who had been resting on their sports car laurels for decades, confident that no challenge to their supremacy could ever come from the Far East, where manufacturers only knew how to make cheap, dreary family cars. I loved it, above all, for its measureless engineering and build quality and the reliability and ease of driving they ensured. For some years in the 1980s, I had an office that overlooked Wilshire Boulevard in the Westwood district of Los Angeles. On Friday afternoons, when the three lanes heading in the direction of Santa Monica were jammed with crawling traffic, I would watch overpaid Hollywood schmoes in Ferrari Testarossas bunny-hopping in first gear as they tried frantically to keep the engine from over-heating. The utterly tractable NSX came as an answer to their prayers.
Unexpectedly, driving the 1989 NSX was a bit of a let-down at first. I had forgotten the tiny 16” wheels on the original car which made it look like a Dinky toy. I was perplexed to find that the steering-wheel adjusted only for rake and not for reach. I was puzzled by the absence of a left foot-rest and ill-at-ease with the high seating position. The engine note, moreover, was the characteristic high-pitched whiz of Japanese engineering which in motorbiking circles was always known as “the rice-burner sound”. In all probability, this resulted from the automatic transmission which was, itself, a surprise. I hadn’t remembered that Honda were bringing the automatic NSX to Britain so early.
All in all, the experience of driving that NSX was disconcertingly close to that of a Honda Civic – an impression that was strengthened by indicator and wiper stalks that had plainly been lifted from the Civic’s parts-bin. Not until I took the wheel of the 2005 NSX 3.2 VTEC version with manual gearbox were my loving memories reignited. Past 4000 rpm, this engine goes into afterburner mode and puts out a bellow like a bull. Then all the characteristics that made this NSX so special come into play – the delicate nimbleness of a perfectly balanced rear-wheel drive, mid-engine setup; tight steering and pedals that call out for heel-and-toeing. Nearly 15 years after it performed the stunt for the first time, this car still sets a grin on your face from ear to ear.
The new all-wheel-drive hybrid NSX does not fully reproduce that joy. The expression you are more likely to find on your face when driving this car is one of grim satisfaction at an industrial product turned out to the highest standards of engineering accomplishment on earth. Soul is not in abundant supply. The 581 bhp and 646 Nm of torque from two electric motors and twin-turbocharged V8, running through a nine-speed DCT transmission, provide performance directly comparable with the M5 Comp; but there is something so clinically cool and scientifically restrained about the NSX that it seems unthinkable any owner would be fool enough to let it all get out of hand.
Climbing up through the Duke’s Pass in the Trossachs out of Aberfoyle in a deluge that gushed rivers of rain-water round the hairpins, the NSX was as imperturbable as a tank, yet leaping along as fleet-footedly as a deer. No suspension system in mass-production is more complex and advanced than the NSX’s aluminium multilink at the rear and double and the steering, with 1:91 wheel turns, kerb to kerb, is as tight as a wheelbarrow’s. I doubt if any car is made to higher safety standards than this extraordinary car, but one of its most striking accomplishments is to make you feel safe even from yourself.
On the way home from the Honda event, I was thinking over the cars in my amazing week and trying to decide which I would choose for my own. It was coming down to a toss-up between the i8 Roadster and the 2005 NSX when I realised I was enjoying myself as much in the car I was driving as I had in any of those ultra-expensive, hyper-fast marvels.
It was a three-door Fiesta ST-Line that would cost £21165. The truth is I would rather have that car than any of them – mostly because I could park it in any street in Britain and not fear that, by the time I got back to it, its panels would have been keyed from front to back and that some cro-magnon would have smeared something unspeakable on its roof. The others may be like an auction prize to enjoy for a day, but you might never get a peaceful night’s sleep if you owned any of them (except maybe the Kia Stinger GTS).