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    NAUGHTY BUT NICE

    Duly noting that they do 15mpg, occupy more road than some seven-seaters and are no faster than certain saloons, Russell Bulgin tries to find a place in the world for three, er, lifestyle accessories, the BMW 850i E31 , #Jaguar-XJR-S and new Porsche-928GTS photographs by Ian Dawson .


    Yes, each of these cars is brilliant. As brilliant in all the hard-to-get good stuff - toe-twitch alacrity, down-the-road grip, the ability to tease trouble before slyly electronic king their way out of it - as you might reasonably expect when appending a signature to a cheque for not less than the thick end of £48,000. They are as brilliant as they have to be, glittering atop the price lists of these respected marques, each a complex totem to corporate ego and the ingrained belief that more is better and might will always out.

    And this is no longer enough. That each of these cars also packs a roster of shortcomings which would spell commercial genocide in a less rarefied market sector is worrying, certainly. But once you’ve gloried with the grip and got hands-on with the handling one question bubbles to the fore: are these cars stimulating harbingers of freedom - intellectual, social and small-p political - in a recessionary era, or just a trio of fat old dinosaurs which should go the way of the stegosaurus, the triceratops and, sadly, Raquel Welch in One Million Years SC?

    These three cars - the £66,465 #BMW 850i E31 with Active Rear Axle Kinematics (hey!), the £48,029 #Jaguar XJR-S and the £64,998 #Porsche 928GTS also reflect very accurately the current commercial fortunes and product philosophy of their manufacturers. Try this: Slick as it is, the BMW can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be green irrespective of body colour - environmentally responsible in terms of construction and eminently recyclable - or a snorting two-seater for a clientele which wants to mash autobahns into submission, day in, day out.

    Financially strapped Jaguar does what any budget-conscious individual would do when tarting up a 17-year-old car; throws a bodykit at it and tunes the engine. The reality of Ford and Jaguar's collective short-termism is Essex Man aesthetics pasted on Great British indomitability.

    Having spent the '80s proving you can’t sell BSc products with an O-Level marketing strategy, Porsche faces the essential truth about the 928 - not enough people want one – and revivifies it the only way the company knows: by throwing more engineering at it. More power, more grip, more... just more.

    ‘Are these cars the harbingers of freedom - intellectual and small-p political - or just fat old dinosaurs?’

    And before casting a critical eye over each car, you should file away the following facts. These cars deliver profoundly terrible fuel consumption figures: in the mid-teens after a day of mildly invigorating driving. The Jaguar, for example, has an effective range of around 250 miles, which limits its appeal as a transcontinental mile-eater. You can stuff the glovebox with freebie-tokens in no time at all, though.

    Such is the combination of dynamic competence and sheer mass of these cars that the effort demanded to touch the limit on the public road should be sufficient to have the driver registered clinically berserk.

    You can’t begin to explore the twilight zone of apex-slinging fun in these cars without putting your licence and other road users at considerable - some would say unconscionable - risk. If you can quantify such an intangible, you might surmise that you can use 30 percent of the available performance without attracting attention from any policeman with a Panda car and polite radio manner.

    Each machine displays a rare level of packaging incompetence. Plan area plus a nodding acknowledgement to seating capacity is a good rule of thumb to the sheer zappability - summer morning, winding road, grin gleaming Colgate factor five - of a performance road car. A Mazda MX-5 seats two in comfort and occupies a veneer of asphalt 13ft 1 in by 5ft 6in; each of the cars tested does precisely the same job but takes a lot more metal to make its point.

    These cars are each within an inch of 6ft across the flanks, with the Jaguar and BMW stretching the tape at 15ft 8in long with the Porsche 10in shorter. A #Mercedes-Benz-W124 saloon is 15ft 8in long and can carry four in comfort, plus a week's shopping, the dog and granny’s travel requisites; if you wish to deal in absolutes, note that a Renault Espace is two inches shorter and two inches narrower than the Porsche and can lug five easily, seven if chummy.

    But, you will say, that’s not the point. These cars are not meant to be sensible, to be relentlessly practical. Maybe not; maybe they should be. Why do manufacturers make strenuous efforts radically to improve their everyday cars in terms of fuel efficiency, performance, accommodation and ecological responsibility only to cap the range with a supremely paunchy, uselessly fast old bloater?

    Because, of course, there is a market for the car as jewellery, the car as status, the car as self aggrandisement. If a gold Rolex Daytona chronograph costs £9800 and tells the time with the accuracy of a 12 quid Casio, then a £65,000 #Porsche which cruises the middle lane at 70mph makes perfect sense. To some people.

    So what of the reality of driving these cars? First, the BMW. A great shape - sinewy, taut - is let down by a lack of confidence at the front end. Perhaps the design team's pencil was worn down; more likely we’ve all seen a Toyota Supra in the rear-view mirror once too often.

    Inside, the cockpit is densely black and ergo- BMW to perfection, constructed of a faintly uneasy combination of black synthetics and semi-matt black leather; surfaces of leather-grained plastic abut leather-grained leather. The ambience is Braun travel alarm; blackly black, functional, moderne, eliciting admiration rather than affection.

    But the 850i works. As a place to pass the miles in, as a fax-free adjunct to an office, a Club Europe ticket and a platinum American Express card, the 850i interior is an elegant, soothing and high-tech minimalist home from home.

    Jaguar V12 is stroked to 6.0 litres; gives smooth 330bhp and thunderous performance. XJR-S chassis and substantially tauter than standard XJS steering are Cockpit is hedonistic though hardly efficient.

    To drive, the BMW 850i E31 is good. Good but not exciting, stimulating or particularly communicative. Springing is lovely, compliant and motorway-friendly, but with a Tendency to turn floaty come the twists.

    There’s a wodge of disinformation about the steering at straight ahead and an elasticity, a faintly artificial self-centring which begins to grate after a while. You don’t want to know everything the front wheels are doing - the inevitable Catseye abuse is an relevance, for example - out it would be reassuring to scroll more data than the BMW processes.

    That V12 #M70 engine packs 300bhp, the smoothness of an electric motor and no sense of involvement whatsoever. Even the noise of the motor is fey, like the thrum of distant air- conditioning. The gearbox is clever, with three programmes: E, presumably economy, proving the Germans have a sense of irony; S, sport ditto; and M for manual which no-one would use seriously. S allows you to pull more revs, eke out brio, gusto and a smidge of ker-pow, but the shift quality is always a shade slammy.

    This car also has cockpit-adjustable suspension, activated by touching a rocker marked K and S. This proves that BMW has had two opportunities to get its suspension calibration wrong: K is fine on smooth roads but discombobulated on anything pocked and winding, while S is jiggle-hard and recommended solely for those who are drivers amply provided with natural padding.

    Even in (Komfort), which is 30 percent softer than standard - and feels it - the 850i will switch to Sport in 40 milliseconds if you are being particularly aggressive in a bend and all to no great effect as the ride still isn’t wholly satisfactory. You can also get the #E31 #BMW #850i to flick from Float to Stiff at precisely the time it is changing down with a hint of a thump; the effect is to make the 850i seem slightly hesitant, unwieldy, unsettled by the reality of pitch-and- toss B-road topography.

    Active Rear Axle Kinematics (that’s AHK in abbreviated German) - yours for £4710 in a package which includes the adjustable suspension, ASC+T traction control, Servotronic steering and the electrically adjustable steering column - is BMW’s four-wheel steering. Steering wheel angle and road speed are measured and an electro-hydraulic steering actuator twiddles the rear wheels to suit.

    The result, says BMW, is a reduction in understeer (agreed), more precise handling (agreed), improved levels of safety (agreed) and a feeling that, as the non- AHK 850i was hardly likely to throw you into the hedge thanks to a mistimed wriggle of the right foot, it’s possibly not worth the extra cash. (BMW would presumably disagree on that one).

    Switch off the excellent ASC anti-skid control and you can excite a curious flash of oversteer before the AHK comes over all territorial and nudges the rear end back into line.

    In present company, the #BMW-850i is the slowest, the least engaging in recreational driving and, of course, the most civilised, the easiest to live with, the most elegant, the best built and the car you would pick to drive to Geneva, whatever the weather, whatever the reason. You would always respect such country- crossing abilities, but never fall passionately in love with it as a loyal and faithful servant. Somehow, the #BMW-850i-E31 is a shade too nice, too pinkly soft, too twee: it tries a mite hard to be friendly and accommodating, offers heart but not soul.

    Never forget that the Jaguar XJS began to look remotely acceptable only when it was decapitated into a soft-top. So the bodykit on the Jaguar Sport-developed XJR-S performs an optical illusion hitherto unknown in contemporary motoring: it distracts your eye from just how terrible the basic car looks, with its stunted cabin, runaway nose and bizarre buttressed rear. Then there’s the dreadful new rear end, where neutral density rear lights - late ’80s trendy - have a major artistic quarrel with their chrome surround - late '60s forgettable - and all to no real improvement.

    That the #XJR-S still manages to pack a superb and radically nose-down presence is a credit to the #JaguarSport crew but the whole project remains testament to British antique restoration skills. The 5.3- litre V12 is stroked to 6.0 litres and 333bhp, 18 percent up on the standard car. Uprated springs and Bilstein dampers are a traditional aftermarket stock- in-trade, and the XJR-S also gets a set of slick new wheels wrapped in Goodyear Eagle ZRs.

    The Jaguar has the worst cabin of the three, but it is the one you want to spend the most time in. It is, unforgivably, cramped ahead and impossibly tiny aft. Why insert such vestigial rear seats? Only leather- lining the spare wheel well could be more pointless.

    The shallow screen crams the world into an accelerated Cinemascope and the layout of the dashboard is less considered than the two German cars’.

    This Jaguar brandishes Montegoid column stalks but, then again, it is the cheapest of the three cars by the margin of a #Mercedes-Benz #190E 1.8 plied with a few choice extras. Nasty by the standards of Mum and Dad saloons, these wands have no place in the cabin of a Jaguar, matching a slimy tactility with the fact that they are cack-handedly fiddly. Which is a shame. Because for all its faults, the walnut, chrome and creamy Autolux hide never fails to seduce. Just sitting inside the Jaguar makes you feel good; it flatters you like a favourite shirt.

    This V12 has grunt and flair to spare. A slug of torque from mid-to-top, an easy going gait which turns thunderous when you begin to quantify the silkiness of the carpet with your throttle shoe. What lets the Jaguar down, ironically, is the three- speed GM400 automatic transmission. Conventional wisdom might have it that any car pushing out 365lb ft of eager-to-please torque could get away with only one gear. Conventional wisdom would be wrong.

    The XJR-S likes living in top gear. Activating kickdown or even dropping a cog produces a rumbustiousness and major forward surge: this is a sledgehammer attack compared with hitting the reprogramme button in the BMW to achieve much the same end. When in top, the XJR-S possesses an endearingly positive surge to deal with motorway flotsam: again, winding roads get it all out of kilter.

    Porsche engine is the rortiest here, a multi-valve V8 against the two-valve V12s. It delivers rocket thrust, and the harsh chassis matches it. Cabin is well designed in front, cramped in back, hideous in colour.

    To make the XJR-S handle, Jaguar Sport has, effectively, de-Jaguared the dynamics of the car. Gone is the pillow-ride and Anadin steering. Instead, you get a firm, well damped motion control that gets fazed only on washboard surfaces, plus slightly nervy and reasonably accurate steering. The XJR-S understeers more than either of its rivals, but once you’re used to that, and the way the steering makes you nibble the wheel to the apex, it masters most moves with a real grace.

    And a lot of noises off. Above 50mph that thick A- pillar and a door mirror that looks like a chromed Harold Robbins paperback sluice up unacceptable levels of wind noise. The leather interior creaks expensively: if the velour and plastic panelling of an econobox was this vocal, you would take it to the dealer for warranty rectification pronto.

    James Bond should drive the XJR-S. Tweaked and massaged it may be, but it retains an essentially British charm. As it is, the person who buys this car would be able to lecture you on the benefits of hand-stitched shoes and intends, one day, to own a Bentley Turbo R.

    In hot red, the Porsche 928GTS looks like Marilyn Monroe's lipstick trying to wriggle its way out of the tube. The light plays gooey tricks along its hip-and-thigh flanks: 14 years on, the 928 can still summon gasps from the kerbside. This shape was organic long before designers coined the term.

    Maybe that’s got something to do with the fact that Porsche has relentlessly funked up the shape of the car. Viewed from a car following the GTS, those unfathomably huge 255/40ZR17 Bridgestones coated on sinfully spoked alloy wheels simply drop straight out of the wheel- arches, plop onto the tarmac. If the BMW is sinew and the Jaguar middle-aged spread with a new haircut, then the 928GTS is muscle pumped with clembuterol.

    But inside, the 928GTS displays some hysterically questionable taste. A red exterior was matched to a pimptastic pale grey leather trim with toning carpets hewn from the stuff furry dice are made from. That the 928GTS has some neat accommodation touches - the way the instrument binnacle adjusts with the steering column up-down remains a delight - the best seats and all-around visibility was completely ignored because the synthetic polar-bear fur on the floor irrevocably grabbed your attention.

    The #Porsche-928 GTS is the noisiest. It pokes out a hardcore V8 throb multitracked with a four-valve head-thrash. You love the sound, an American muscle car that has graduated from a top European finishing school. However, you can’t escape it. And, on top of that, the 928GTS splodges a ringing tenor ding which seems to percolate up the gear linkage - the five-speed transaxle, don’t forget, sits between the rear wheels. There is also considerable tyre swish, road rumble and a feeling that this car is rawer, less couth than the other two.

    Your ears do not deceive. The #Porsche-928GTS is blatantly yobbist. It is also the fastest, the most fun to drive, the most rewarding to drive and the car which results from a manufacturer with the clearest vision of things fatso. Porsche's brief to its engineers must have been something like: make this car involving; make punters fall in love with it; make it bloody fast.

    A four-cam V8 taken out to 5.4 litres, 340bhp and hauling 369lb ft of torque seems good enough. When you add in an effective working range of 4000rpm - from 2800rpm to 6800rpm - and a five-speed manual shift which manages to be sloppy, notchy and just about exemplary you have a recipe for real driving fun.

    For once the steering is perfectly weighted and has a wholly mechanical-feeling smoothness as if rifle oil is periodically dripped into its works. Ride? Firm, but consistent - unlike the BMW - and remarkably supple given the tyres look as if they spent a previous life as rubber bands.

    An electronically controlled transverse rear diff lock-up - traction control with added pretension - works with genius subtlety, allowing sufficient tail happiness before cracking the whip. Brakes? ABSed, like in each of these cars, but with a better pedal feel than the slightly softer Jaguar action and more initial bite than the BMW.

    Stick the Porsche in third, let the torque carry the day and the #928GTS does what neither of its rivals can manage: it shrinks around you, seems to fade to Mazda MX-5 dimensions. But it makes more demands on your forbearance than the other two.

    A deep-rooted lack of manners makes it a less amenable long-distance companion than the #E31 #850i or #XJR-S : it may offer the highest reward to the enthusiastic driver, but it will never soothe after a hard day at corporate HQ. This Porsche is pugnacious, up- and-at-’em at all times.

    For serious wing-dingery on roads that turn your knuckles a shade paler, you would take a Lancia Delta HF Integrale or #Ford-Escort-Cosworth-RS in preference to any of these cars: those hot homologators flow on roads where the fatties flail. Crossing Europe in an afternoon? None of these cars comes close to offering slice of all these virtues, buy a #BMW #M5 #E34 instead: a blend of handling and pace which outranks two of the three cars here and proffers discretion, a rear seat and a decent boot to boot.

    But these cars are not transport in the accepted sense. The way each performs is less important than what they say about the owner: they are lifestyle accessories for people who always know the chicest holiday location, get the best table in the restaurant and are on first-name terms with their personal financial r advisers. If thrashing them across Exmoor highlighted their shortcomings, a late- night run from Frankfurt to Milan for a breakfast meeting is their true habitat.

    These are the cars which say that you’ve made it, you’re going to flaunt it and to hell with the petrol consumption. These are cars which, now more than ever, defy rational analysis. They are, of course, brilliant. And stupid. And often at the same time.
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