evo Car of the Year 2012 starts right here. Behind the steering wheel of a yellow pick-up truck. Skipping across the road ahead is a machine that’s clearly from the 1930s and that, unless my eyes deceive me, is one whole wheel short of being a proper car. I know I’ve been away for a little while, but have things really changed quite this much? Next you’ll be telling me an absurdly vast and fast ‘off-roader’ is in the mix. Oh god, John Barker has just popped into my mirrors in a bloody ML63 AMG. That’s it, I’d like to formally announce my retirement.
Of course I’m being facetious. eCoty does very much start here, but this is an amuse-bouche before the main event: a small gathering of some of the weird and wonderful machinery that’s spiced up 2012, the sort of cars that might not automatically make the eCoty list but deserve more than an honourable-yet- dismissive mention. This is the inaugural Leftfield evo Car of the Year (LeCoty sounds rather cultured, doesn’t it?) and these four comically diverse cars will fight it out for the final place in the main eCoty competition you will read about next month. There’s the Mercedes ML63, that subtle Vauxhall VXR8 Maloo, Morgan’s evocative ‘new’ 3 Wheeler and the intense BAC Mono – an SUV, a ute, a two-cylinder three-wheeler and a single-seater that happens to be road legal. Definitely leftfield, then.
We trundle to a halt near our chosen test route and the cacophony of bassy V8s, a shrill four-cylinder and that chugging V-twin stop momentarily. Where to begin? The decision is easy. Place the £30,000 Morgan 3 Wheeler in any group of cars and it’d always be the one you’d instinctively want to wriggle into. It’s a motorised Biggles novel – all adventure and derring-do, fighting the good fight for Great Britain and the Empire and all that nonsense. It’s irresistible. The options list includes stickers that riddle the aluminium hull with bullet holes, for crying out loud. It’s all your best Christmas presents rolled into one – with not an LED daytime running light to be seen. An exposed chromed V-twin is more dazzling anyway.
The unique engine might only have two cylinders but it’s also nearly 2 litres of swept volume. And when you’ve slid down onto the flat leather bench, turned the key, lifted a little cover mounted right in the middle of the dash and pressed the start button, you can hear and feel every revolution. Bup, pause, bup, pause, bup, pause… In fact you really hear just one cylinder pumping up and down, the other lost through the opposite exhaust pipe. You can’t see the nearside front wheel either – only a big chrome headlight, a soot-black exhaust, and that great spindly wheel to your right hanging from double-wishbone suspension.
The driving position is pretty cramped so the steering wheel is close to your chest, and your legs splay wherever they find room under the rather ugly steering wheel. It’s the only blight on a fantastically emotive environment. You feel heroic just sitting there, aluminium tub throbbing to the beat of the 1990cc engine. It might only have 80bhp at the rear wheel and 103lb ft, but initial impressions suggest the 3 Wheeler is 70 per cent engine, 30 per cent everything else. Already it’s bombarding you with noises and smells, and although you’re exposed and peering over tiny aero screens to get a good view of the road ahead, you feel snug and ready to get stuck in. Fortunately the five-speed Mazda MX-5 gearbox is wholly conventional, the pedals are well-weighted and the broad spread of torque helps you chug away smoothly.
I reckon the 3 Wheeler will have won over most people by the time they’ve slotted into third gear, because it’s just so honest and authentic. The air swirls around you, pulsating to the heavy bass and thick with the scent of oil and grease and other manly things; the narrow front wheels bobble and shimmy with the road and the hefty steering dances to the same tune. It’s intoxicating and just how you’d hope a vintage sports car might be but suspect probably isn’t. The engine is all torque and hits the limiter not far past 6000rpm, but it delivers a solid shove of performance thanks to the 3 Wheeler’s flyweight 500kg frame. The ’box doesn’t feel MX-5 precise, strangely, but is still a quick, easy shift, even in this well-abused pre-production car.
So you’re busy with the gearbox, you shoulder the car into turns and then jump on the power as you exit. But you have to be really mindful of what’s ahead as the skinny front tyres don’t have much grip to help slow you down and they run wide with alarming ease if you’ve just stepped out of something with modern levels of grip. Basically you’re captivated, totally in the moment of making this bundle of vibration stop and turn and go. It is magic.
And oddly, it never really occurs to you that it’s a three-wheeler. There’s plenty of rear grip and in the dry you’ll understeer long before the single (much fatter) rear tyre loses grip. I’m not sure what I expected a one-wheel-drive car to feel like but I’m pleasantly surprised by the Morgan’s grip, stability and response. It’s not a Caterham, but in its own way it’s just as involving and just as thrilling.
The other JB started at the other end of the scale in the £82,995 ML63 AMG. This latest version looks pretty ordinary compared to its aggressive predecessor and manages to make 20in rims look like 14s. It is huge. But then it does have a 5.5-litre V8 with 518bhp and 516lb ft to haul its considerable 2270kg frame. It got its place here because a couple of people in the office had tried it and said it was surprisingly good. John, I suspect, might be a harsher critic.
Turns out he isn’t: ‘Despite my belief that many “bling” SUVs are bought by bullies who might also be short and under-endowed, I was – reluctantly – seriously impressed by the dynamics of this ML,’ he gasps with the look of a man who’s just realised the earth isn’t flat after all. ‘It has terrific body control, delivering both a supple ride and outstanding high-speed control in the firmest of the three damper settings. Not only that, it has very accurate steering – at first, sitting high, you can’t help chucking plenty of lock at it anticipating the lack of response. That never happens; it steers like a car, and a good one at that.’ Bloody hell.
He’s right, too. The ML63 is, through gritted teeth, superb. You sit way up high but quickly you sense that under you is a chassis with composure and agility, and the centre of gravity feels well below your ankles. The steering is light but has almost the same refined detail as a C63’s, body roll is beautifully measured and those 20in wheels trace the surface without any skipping or thumping. And all the time the biturbo V8 delivers great waves of furious torque. The real surprise, I suppose, is that it’s an AMG that isn’t all about the engine and what it’ll do to the rear tyres.
Of course it’s fun sliding a C63 or E63 around at low speeds, but when you want to be quick and smooth they can be frustrating – lacking traction and proving tricky to balance between front-end push and constant wheelspin. The four-wheel-drive ML has no such issues and effortlessly soaks up whatever the engine has to give with no trouble. AMG does love its oversteer though, doesn’t it? And you sense that if it couldn’t make the ML slide under power, it damn well would on a trailing throttle. So you turn in hard and the rear edges out like a Mégane Trophy would. Understeer isn’t an issue and with the dampers on their firmest setting it just flicks beautifully from left to right, parries bumps and shrugs off its girth. A Cayenne Turbo wouldn’t be this much fun.
The Maloo is exposed to a certain extent by the ML63. You might sit lower and it might seem more car-like, but the controls feel sloppy and inaccurate after the ML’s sharpness. And the engine feels a bit gutless. I’ve championed this thing many times before but initially it feels a bit hopeless. However, John has already given it a ringing endorsement so he’s either feeling particularly charitable or the Maloo has hidden depths. I’m betting on the latter and so try to remove the ML comparison from my mind and immerse myself in 20ft of bright yellow ute.
It doesn’t take long to uncover the £51,500 Maloo’s charms but it does take a surprising amount of commitment. You have to ignore the slightly remote steering, bully the long-winded but positive gearshift and forget that the spec sheet says this car has a 6.2-litre V8 with 406lb ft of torque. Go looking instead for the 425bhp at 6000rpm, turn in so hard that you feel a little bit of understeer and then poke the tightly wound V8 so it loosens the rear tyres’ grip.
Now you’ve cracked it and have access to a fluid, progressive chassis. That mighty wheelbase, the relatively soft suspension and the excellent throttle response mean that the Maloo is a born entertainer. If you like oversteer, this is the weapon in which to practise your skills. It’s also surprisingly tidy when you stop mucking around and just drive: it tucks cleanly into corners, holds a neutral balance and shifts so gently between slip and grip at front or rear that you always feel totally on top of it. It might not have the feel and precision of an M3 (or even an ML!) but it’s deeply loveable and surprisingly composed.
John sums it up: ‘The steering is quite light and lacking in pushback and there’s a slightly remote sense of connection through the chassis to the road, but as you get used to it and start to hustle through the comfy ride, you find that the car makes all the right moves. It’s precise, poised and predictable.’
‘Precise’ can be a subjective word and the BAC Mono might just be about to redefine our collective definition. I have a feeling John might wish he’d saved that word until after climbing out of this single-minded single-seater. I can’t wait to jump into it. I can appreciate the sublime detailing, the elegance of the shape and the purity of the engineering of this car – only a fool could ignore them when you see it up close – but my overwhelming urge is to just shuffle down into it and pin the throttle.
The guys from BAC explain some of the aero details and the philosophy behind the car, but to be honest it’s just noise. I think they sense I’m itching to go so instead they run me through the starting procedure: ‘Climb in, get comfortable, press the red cut-out to your left and wait a few seconds. Touch the power button, wait for the wheel to power up [meaning the wheel-mounted screen displaying speed, gear, oil pressure, temperatures, etc], press it again and it’ll start. Press the green neutral button and flick the upshift paddle to select first. Use the clutch below 4000rpm. Don’t crash.’
So you stand on the seat, the detachable steering wheel resting on top of the car, ahead of the cockpit, to ease access. You slide down with straight legs and then lean back until you hit the backrest. It’s seriously reclined so you have to consciously push yourself against it, fighting your natural instinct to perch forward for a better view. Now you grab the steering wheel, pull back the release mechanism so it slides into position and look around in wonderment. What a sight! Unless you’re a seasoned single-seater racer, it feels like you’ve climbed into your TV during one of those onboard F1 qualifying laps. And it feels incredibly special waiting for the wheel display to flicker into life, starting the 2.3-litre 280bhp Ford Duratec motor and feeling it buzz harshly through the seat. It’s so different to the Morgan, but the Mono creates the same sense of euphoria before it’s even turned a wheel.
It clunks heavily into first, sending a shudder through the chassis, but despite that initial sense of harshness and the intense buzzing of the engine, the Mono immediately puts you at ease. The driving position is just fantastic and totally intuitive and the clutch is easy to modulate and forgiving. Even more of a surprise is the suppleness of the chassis and the relaxed, measured steering response. BAC claims the Mono has twice the suspension travel of a Lotus 2-Eleven and that it’s primarily a road car that happens to be mighty on track.
So it’s easy to drive and the pneumatically actuated ’box is well-mannered when you use the clutch at low revs. However, aside from the fact that it feels so unique and offers such amazing visibility, there’s not much fun to be had at low speeds. The whole car fizzes with the vibrations, your ankles tingle like you’re driving a kart, and your chest buzzes and makes you actually think about the act of breathing. As John says: ‘It’s enough to loosen catarrh from the throats of even non-smokers.’ And the Duratec motor might sound fabulously angry at high revs but it makes an ugly, industrial noise much below 4500rpm. To appreciate this car you need an empty road and the mindset to give its engine everything.
When you do, the 540kg Mono is simply stunning. It rides bumps like a Lotus, the steering is pinpoint-precise and wriggles with feedback and the car changes direction like nothing else. The Mono isn’t a downforce car, but such is the mechanical grip it feels like one and you find yourself scanning the road ahead and wondering… ‘is that flat?’ The answer is invariably yes, so pretty quickly you’re snapping through the gears, the engine screaming towards the limiter and you find yourself attacking fifth-gear turns with all of your bravery.
You barely seem to move the steering wheel and conventional things like under- and oversteer cease to be relevant. You just ease on a tiny bit of lock and revel in the G-force. In slower turns the Mono shows similar composure and you also get to enjoy the astonishing brakes and the way you can compress the phase between braking and accelerating. Dive to the apex hard on the middle pedal and then immediately go to full power. The chassis gets better and better the harder you push.
In terms of pure dynamics, the Mono is a clear winner. The chassis is incredible and as a piece of design, it has almost poetic purity. However, that comes at a price – both in financial and driving experience terms. The Mono is nearly £90,000 basic. It is also almost defined by that solidly mounted engine, which gives the authentic single-seater experience but detracts from the fun at anything less than nine-tenths. It’s remarkable that BAC has managed to create a car so single-minded and yet so capable even on really ragged roads, but despite its composure and suppleness it still only really comes alive when you drive it like a race car. If you have half a dozen cars already, the Mono provides something unique and seriously exciting, but I’m not sure it’s as much fun as much of the time as the archaic but intoxicating Morgan.
The Maloo definitely isn’t as fun, either. I love its indulgent, oversteery balance and the sheer entertainment it serves up, but I suspect it would feel woolly and all at sea at eCoty just as the other contenders start to up their game. It’s also a whole heap of money for a relatively blunt instrument. The ML63 is more precise, more capable and great fun to drive, too, but it can’t thrill like the Mono or the Morgan. It leaves us holding its head high – well, I suppose it arrived holding its head high, but you get the point.
So it comes down to two lightweights that are poles apart but share a rare sense of theatre and offer a unique flavour. The Mono is light years ahead in engineering, construction and performance terms, but the Morgan puts a grin on your face on any drive on any type of road. Because of that, it wins by a whisker.