Three Cars, One Hill

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This was the best magazine road test that had never been undertaken. In an ideal world it would have been me and two other top-flight motoring journalists, and perhaps a photographer with a chase car. We would have had two days to get the exact shots that we wanted for the feature, as well as to really get to grips with the performance of our three chosen steeds. After two days of pure driving exhilaration we would draw to our conclusions and a victor would be crowned. We couldn’t have wanted for a better or more challenging location, the peaks and passes of Cumbria, but some sunnier weather wouldn’t have gone amiss.
That was the fantasy. The reality was that I was on a family holiday and motoring journalism netted a big fat zero on the “why we’re here” score sheet. Accordingly, rather than a select team of automotive experts, the other cars were piloted by my sister and my parents. At least I was travelling with a beautiful young blonde who would no doubt find my driving prowess an enormous turn-on.

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“Let me show you the best roads you’ll ever drive”.
The offer was a good one. Never mind that I had conquered the incredible Swiss San Bernardino Pass only a few months earlier, I was always keen to absorb my Dad’s wisdom. He had, after all, spent an awful lot more time on the winding lanes of the Lake District than I had, so a plan was hatched. We would disguise this fact-finding mission as “a nice drive in the country” and the less auto-centric of the party would be assured of a lovely pub lunch at the end of it.
To indulge my road-test fantasies, I asked every driver to press on as hard as they felt comfortable so doing in the hope that I’d get some kind of Top-Gear style stream-of-consciousness hyperbole flowing which I could spin into some kind of bitumen-flavoured online yarn at some point in the future. So, on one wet, misty morning, our three cars and their crew obediently began the trip to the Hardknott Pass.
So, what was this convoy? Well, the Audi was my new pride and joy and had just taken me 5200 miles from home, to Gothenburg in Sweden and back, via the South of France and Italy. I had recently changed the cam belt and water pump and this foray to The Lakes was part of its shakedown process. My RAC breakdown and recovery card was safe in my wallet, but everything was looking good so far.
The Ford Puma belonged to my Sister. I had sourced it for her when it came in as a part exchange when I was working as a BMW salesman. It had the best part of a hundred thousand under its wheels, but was in generally good condition and certainly felt as it should during my exploratory test drive (read merciless thrashing) before I passed it onto her. I made sure I found her a 1.7, too. Got to do things properly.
The BMW was a 540iA which, again, I took in as part exchange and found a caring home for in the guise of my father. This was the first non-Ford he had bought in decades, and it proved to be quite a turning point.
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What we had here was a wildly disparate group of cars, but of which each had characteristics specifically designed to appeal to the driver. All three were, nominally at least, sporting versions of their respective types (the Audi and the BMW were even sold as Sport models). So, as a wannabe road-tester accompanied by two other drivers who really had no interest at all in my daft writing concerns, what was I to achieve from the day? How could I turn this cross-country trip into a valid, meaningful road test review experience?
Well, I could ask them. I had personally covered enough miles behind the wheel of the BMW and the Ford to be able to furnish anybody who asked me to with a full, detailed account of the experience, from my own perspective. What I was interested in here was their account of  their car on these roads. In fact, I thought it might actually be more interesting than simply compiling my own findings.
My Sister, in the Puma, had been enjoying herself. She had previously discovered that the little Ford was dartier than a ballet-trained muntjac, but had never tried it on roads quite as tortuous as these. She described her drive as having been exciting, and confessed that she had been too busy behind the wheel to blink. She added that the Puma seemed to want to feel its way around the corners, scurrying like a field mouse, ignoring her hesitance and her reluctance to commit to unknown corners with too much enthusiasm. The Puma was forcing her to enjoy herself, and she didn’t put up a fight.
She was at the back of the pack, driving the car with the least power, and was also the least experienced driver among us, but the Puma made a very creditable showing, staying pretty close to me in the Audi. Interestingly, she would complain about the Puma’s engine not suiting the roads. No matter what gear she was in, just at the very moment the car felt like it was about to deliver a nice, chewy bundle of power, she arrived at the next corner.
I had a variation of the same complaint in the Audi, which is turbocharged and can therefore be lazily accused of lag. Thing is, in standard tune, it’s not very turbocharged.  That little KO3 snail only really serves to boost the midrange- something it actually does with surprising zeal. Well driven, and kept spinning north of 3000 rpm, the 1.8T develops the lungs of a bigger engine and can mount a fairly impressive charge when given its head. Unfortunately, on these roads, keeping the revs up there would require serious skills (that I lacked) and the ability to predict corners and row down through the gears in readiness for them. If I had pace notes to follow, the Audi could have done far better here.
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I suspect the Puma’s limitations were more to do with the gearing than the engine. That Zetec-SE mill is such a rorty, free-spinning jewel of a thing that it simply can’t be worked too hard. I’ve no doubt that a compromise was made for economy and user-friendliness. This engine mated to a box with six speeds, spanning the same gap but with closer ratios, would probably make for an even more accomplished cross-country swashbuckler.  It would certainly be way beyond the capabilities of the Audi.
I believe I was doing a good job to wring the best out of the A4. For a front-wheel-drive car of reasonable girth, it was doing very well indeed. There was very little genuine feel to the steering, though its accuracy was never in doubt. Turn in was crisp though never pin-sharp, the ultimate pointiness of the car being numbed by the sense of a weighty engine mounted ahead of the front wheels. Still; it felt sporty. It had loads of grip and it felt good. Best of all, for a few precious moments I managed to keep the turbo spooled in 2nd and 3rd gear, with both the car and myself coming alive in doing so.
But I couldn’t keep up with the BMW, despite the disadvantage he had as the leader of the pack. He was the first into every corner and so became a pacemaker. If bad stuff happened to me, it would happen to him first. Fortunately, he’s no fool. My Dad will never take a driving risk. Second time along a given course he’ll remember what he can do and get a bit more creative, but on meeting a road for the first time he’ll dial in quite a lot of safety margin. It’s a good thing to do. Won’t get you on pole position but it will get you to live way into your sixties.
Slow in, fast out, was the order of the day, and from the graphite leather perch of the Audi I could see just how slow, slow was. But as soon as he charted his trajectory for the exit, his car would snap forward like a catapult released. It made the straights look so easy, so effortless, and then he’d gently brake into the next corner, the three reds glowing for what seemed like an age, before sweeping forwards again at a pace that I stood absolutely no chance of staying with.
His car was the most laden of the three, carrying not only my Dad but also Mum and my grandparents, who apparently fell silent through most of their ordeal. So as well as the added ballast of human freight, he also had to deliver his cargo something approaching a comfortable ride. Yet still I couldn’t keep up.
Dad credits the 540iA’s automatic ‘box as being key to the experience. Though the fun of changing cogs was missed, in “Sport” mode the ‘box always seems to have the right answers. It always served him the gear he wanted and would provide downshifts where necessary. It also meant he could keep both hands soberly on the wheel, which must have put his octogenarian passenger roster at ease a little.
My own experience of M-Sport pack equipped E39’s has been largely positive, and I know that they cope with corners very nicely for a car so weighty. Ultimately in terms of the widely misunderstood science we have colloquialised as “handling”, the E39 is very good at it. No doubt with the greater control of a manual gearbox you could unlock its capabilities still further. Of course, Dad came nowhere near the limits of the car, with a heavy V8 and four adults on board the E39 was far too heavy an assembly to be nimble; it delivers a different kind of driver-fulfilment than the gossamer-light and flickable Puma. But the ability to cover ground rapidly was just part of the challenge.
Dismounting from our steeds was the most fascinating part of the entire endeavour. Emerging from the cars when we parked at the end of the Hardnott Pass were two wide eyed, exasperated figures from the Puma, one wildly grinning driver and one wretchedly travel-sick passenger from the Audi, and four relaxed, unshaken folk from the BMW whose pressing concern at the time was where they might find a nice cream tea and a slice of cake. The 540 had not only lead the pack for the whole journey, but had done so in a manner where neither car nor occupants broke into even the slightest of sweats.
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I got my road test. In fact, I got a far more worthwhile assessment of all three cars than I could ever have read in a magazine, simply by watching the cars and cross-examining their drivers and passengers. On roads like this cars have nowhere to hide. Their failings are laid bare. Give a driver a flat road and ask them to drive their car moderately before describing it and they could tell you any old bollocks. But put them on a challenging road and ask them to drive to the best of their ability and the truth comes pouring out, even if all Dad was able to tell me was that his car was way, way better than its driver.
This story is based on notes I scribbled (and photos I took) in 2008, before I became a part of the Hooniverse (exactly 600 posts ago).  A lot has changed since then, My grandfather, who was seated in the back of the bimmer, silently approving of My Dad’s conduct at the helm, is no longer with us. The Puma, too, succumbed to the inevitable rust and is now very likely bean tins or Chinese refrigerators. The beautiful blonde who accompanied me in the Audi is now my wife, and the Audi and BMW continue to give exemplary service to myself and my Dad respectively.
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2008 / 2016)

About RoadworkUK

RoadworkUK is the online persona of Gianni Hirsch, a tall, awkward gentleman with a home office full of gently decomposing paper and a garage full of worthless scrap metal. He lives in the village of Moistly, which is a safe distance from London and is surrounded by enough water and scenery to be interesting. In another life, he has designed, sold, worked on and written about cars in exchange for small quantities of money.

6 Comments

  1. How on earth did Audi-NSU go from the sublime, beautifully balanced (power) steering of the NSU RO80 to the crappy, vague, wooden, unresponsive tiller of those, (and current ?) Audis ? The Ur Quattro was great too so they must know how to do it.
    Maybe they worked out that most people don’t seem to care ?
    And Wow!
    600 articles, no wonder you got good.

  2. “four relaxed, unshaken folk from the BMW whoes pressing concern at the time was where they might find a nice cream tea and a slice of cake.”

    Other than making the BMW a Rover, could that sentence be more British?

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