Smart fortwo v Porsche Cayman; who wins?

Smart fortwo v Porsche Cayman; who wins?

OK, so we didn’t do a direct comparison test of a smart versus a Porsche, however the 2010 SMMT (Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders) Test Day did allow a huge range of green versus not-so-green cars to be compared. So what did we learn from this? Within the environment of the Millbrook Proving Ground, and in particular the hill route test circuit, can ‘green’ cars really compete with ‘non-green’ cars?

Some of the green machinery available for drives ranged from the UK’s most economical car, a smart fortwo cdi, to Volvo’s all-electric C30, and a plug-in diesel-electric hybrid Volvo V70 estate. Although the smart is here now, the Volvos are currently only prototypes.

Some of the not-so-green machinery that was driven included the Porsche 911 GT3, Porsche Cayman S (even though it was painted green) and Audi R8 V10 Spyder.

Big SUVs were also present, including the new Infiniti G37 and FX 50S. Land Rover had a Range Rover, Range Rover Sport and Discovery available for test drives, but only where they’re meant to be used – on Millbrook’s off-road course.

So, faced with some of the motor industry’s best offerings, do green cars stand any hope of winning the hearts of buyers?

It should always be remembered that cars are an emotional purchase, certainly when bought privately, and even fleet cars have an emotional impact on the driver. The feel-good factor of taking a Porsche Cayman S around Millbrook’s hill circuit registers close to 100 on the emotional scale, compared to around minus 100 when taking the smart fortwo cdi around the same route. The balance, agility, and the way everything works so well in a Cayman is a direct antithesis to the huge frustration of the slow semi-automatic gearbox in the smart, along with the brakes that always keep you wondering whether they’ll stop you in time.

OK, so a comparison between a smart and a Cayman or a 911 GT3 is completely unfair, but the reality is that all cars, even sports cars, will have to demonstrate much lower emissions in the coming years, while maintaining their emotional appeal for buyers, so it’s interesting to see where we are at the moment in terms of what’s green; what’s great to drive; and what’s coming close to achieving the best of both worlds.

There was nothing at the event that was lower in emissions than the MINI E or the Volvo C30 Battery Electric Vehicle. Both of these cars emit zero tailpipe emissions, but neither are available to buy at the moment. We’ve driven the MINI E before, and we know it’s a fun package, but the problem is that the rear seats have had to be ditched to make space for its batteries. The Volvo C30 BEV retains its rear seats, and is a refined, practical package, but it’s only at the testing stage at the moment.

For people who want zero emissions but don’t like the idea of a relatively small range, the Volvo V70 Plug-in Hybrid combines a battery and electric motor with a diesel engine, so aiming to achieve zero emissions in urban areas, with the ability to do a long run on an economical diesel engine. The electric powertrain seemed to have no problems hauling the big estate around, even though the vehicle weighed over two tonnes with a diesel engine, a battery and an electric motor on board.

The two Volvos show that progress is being made towards reducing emissions. So which sector of cars needs more green progress? Land Rover has certainly not been a leader in green cars over recent years, but there’s a reason for this. We took a Range Rover Sport over the off-road course. This car may have an image that is diametrically opposed to green cars. However, despite how people view this car, it has to be said that this is a hugely competent vehicle due to the way that it combines highly impressive refinement on-road with an ability to easily tackle the worst that the Millbrook off-road area can throw at it. This included deep water, huge holes and ruts, and very steep inclines – up, down, and sideways. All of these challenges were overcome completely effortlessly, on standard road tyres.

However this phenomenal capability requires some robust engineering, which makes Land Rovers heavy, and, even with diesel engines, uneconomical. JaguarLandRover is currently investing heavily in order to make its vehicles more sustainable, and we wish the company luck in order to bring its emissions down while maintaining the legendary capability demonstrated by the brand’s products at Millbrook.

If you want a vehicle with much lower emissions, and at much lower cost, that comes close to matching the driving dynamics of the Range Rover Sport on-road, with similar traction off-road but without the ground clearance of Land Rovers, then consider the Subaru Outback. Ignore the 3.6-litre petrol version – we can’t see Subaru selling more than a handful of these in the UK – but the 2.0-litre boxer diesel version emits 167 g/km CO2 and, again on standard road tyres, it easily climbed all the slippery steep slopes that the Range Rover Sport crawled up. It’s just unfortunate that due to growing in size and becoming more refined, the new Outback has worse emissions than the previous model – this is an own goal that very few manufacturers will be seeking to repeat.

So if the Subaru Outback was one of the most capable yet overlooked off-road vehicles at Millbrook, what was the most capable yet overlooked on-road vehicle? Whilst most people’s interest was focused on the likes of the Porsche 911 GT3, Porsche Cayman and Audi R8, all of which were highly impressive in their own individual ways around Millbrook, one of the most capable cars around the hill route was the Audi TT RS. This car felt completely at home on the hill route, the engine delivered excellent performance and it sounded fantastic, all resulting in the car devouring the circuit with ease.

However while the Audi TT RS may be one of the benchmarks of the day in terms of performance around the circuit, it’s hardly a green icon, so which car offered the best balance between performance and green credentials?

The Renaultsport Cup family of Twingo, Clio and Megane were all fun and capable weapons on the track, with relatively low emissions compared to more traditional performance machinery, however they’re only ever going to appeal to a minority of car buyers.

The Honda CR-Z was a strong contender, but as our recent road test shows, ultimately its 1.5-litre petrol engine, even with some assistance from the hybrid system, just didn’t have the performance to compete with the majority of cars at the event.

The new BMW 535i was excellent around the circuit; it has an incredible engine and for a four-door saloon it flew around the track in a highly impressive way. However while its emissions are very good relative to its performance, it still can’t claim super-low emissions.

But there was one car that seemed to offer the best of all worlds. It was a premium 5-seater saloon, with rear-wheel drive and entertaining handling. Performance from its 2-litre turbodiesel engine is excellent, yet it emits an incredibly low 109 g/km CO2. This car is the BMW 320d EfficientDynamics, and at this year’s SMMT Test Day at Millbrook, it wins our award for the best balance between a driver’s car that will appeal to your heart, and a low emission car that will appeal to your head. As an added bonus, your accountant will also like it.

The SMMT Test Day becomes another marker in the annual calendar to enable us to take a record of where the optimum driver’s car/green car balance sits, and we look forward to seeing how much more progress will have been made by the time of next year’s event.

Paul Clarke

Keywords: SMMT (Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders) Test Day 2010, Millbrook Proving Ground