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Which is king between Mazda RX-8 and Toyota Celica GT?

Dear Baraza,
I am an ardent reader of your informative column and I thank you for the great work and research.

I am planning to buy my first car and I plan to use it to travel approximately 140km to Nairobi every Saturday and Monday.

I am a fan of sports cars, so when I came across Mazda RX-8 with a 1.3-litre engine, and fell madly in love with it.

However, I realised that the car uses a rotary engine which makes its fuel consumption very high. I would like a car that is economical with fuel and has a high resale value. Kindly advise me on the following,

1. Whether it is possible to replace the RX8 rotary engine with another one that is not as thirsty.

2. How does the RX-8 compare with Toyota Celica GT? Kindly advise me on any other better sport car models.

3. Finally, since I would like to import the car, is the import duty for sport cars higher than that of ordinary boxes?

Duncan Muthoni

The Mazda RX-8 is a sweet little car, but the rotary engine technology was doomed from the start, which was way back in the late 1960s, because it was not really a workable one.

Mazda just insisted on exploring that option as a way to look “unique” from other manufacturers, but even they had to eventually accept the circumstances and adapt accordingly. The RX-8 was the last car ever to use a rotary engine and it is no more.

Anyway, the high fuel consumption comes from the fact that there are three power strokes per every revolution of the crankshaft for a single rotor — the Wankel equivalent of a reciprocating engine piston — as compared to “half” for the piston — one power stroke per two revolutions of the crankshaft. The power stroke is the phase when fuel is burnt to produce power.

Other complications connected to a rotary engine are high oil consumption, lack of torque, which necessitates a high-revving engine, which in turns leads to even higher fuel consumption (the RX-8 revs to 9,500 rpm) and is expensive to maintain since the rotor tips, made from carbon, get cooked very fast and are always in need of replacement.

Anyway, to your question:

1. Yes, it is possible to replace the rotary engine with a reciprocating one. However, the work and money involved are off-putting, especially in fabrication and computer work.

At the end of it all, you may have even forgotten that the original intention was to save money. You might be better off sticking it out with your rotary and replacing it with another rotary once it goes bang. With good care, this might not necessarily happen.

2. The Mazda RX-8 is “sportier”. It has more horsepower (230hp vs the Celica’s 190hp), it is revvier (9,500 rpm is not a joke), it looks more snazzy, handles better, and is generally quicker. Other options would be a Nissan 350Z, a Honda S2000, Mercedes-Benz SLK, Chrysler Crossfire (stay away from this one), and BMW Z3 or Z4.

3. This I am not sure of, but I hardly think so. A friend just imported a crazy-fast sports car (R35 Nissan GTR) and initial calculations based on KRA’s universal customs duty criteria closely matched what the actual payment made was. So I do not think there is a “special” sports car importation tax.

Dear Baraza,

I have have been seeing buses with engines mounted at the rear and I am curious to know the following:

1. How does this setting compare with engines mounted at the front in terms of transmission, efficacy and maintenance.

2. Assuming two buses with the same engine specificiations (with one having the engine in front and the other at the rear) are going uphill, how would they compare? I am assuming one engine is pulling the load and the other is pushing.

3. Do the rear engine buses have a drive shaft since the engine is on top of the driving wheels?

Chris M M

I have had this debate between rear-engine and front-engine buses before. We had some interesting points, but these are the ones that stood out regarding your question:

1. Transmission: Front-engine buses have some advantage here because a rear-engine bus requires remote controls from the driver area to the back, where the engine is. These remote controls include the accelerator and clutch (for buses with a manual transmission). Also, the placement of the transaxle (gearbox, engine, and diff is all in one unit) means repairs and maintenance is a lot more complicated than in a front-engine bus.

However, rear-engine buses have been found to be much quieter than their front-engine counterparts because there is noise isolation. The rear-engine setup also means the engine and the driven wheels are at the same end of the vehicle, eliminating the need for long prop-shafts travelling along the centre line of the bus from the front to the back axle.

This absence of a lengthy prop-shaft means that the bus body can be fabricated with a much lower floor, thus maximising the available space from that chassis and hence optimising efficiency.

2. The difference would be hardly noticeable. Buses rarely suffer from loss of traction, and I know this particular question concerns that. In both cases, the engine would be pushing  the bus because either way, drive is going to the the rear axle. Placing the weight over the rear axle will not really make much of a difference.

The difference between pushing and pulling usually comes from the driven axle and not engine position. A front-wheel drive car pulls, while a rear-wheel drive car pushes, irrespective of engine placement.

3. Yes, they have to have a drive-shaft. There is no other way in which power from the engine can reach the wheels for a traction engine without drive-shafts. (Note: traction engines are the sort where the engine power directly powers the wheels.

The other type is a reaction engine where the vehicle motion comes from Newton’s most famous law. A good example is a jet engine, where the momentum of the exhaust gases pushes the entire vehicle)

Hi Baraza,
I have noticed that Scania F330 buses are quite adept at scaling steep sections, and that Isuzus, on the other hand, are more of jacks of all trades but not good for speed and power on either flat or steep surfaces. Nissan Diesels, I have also learnt, are quite underpowered when going uphill but become beasts on flat surfaces and even outsprint the Scanias and Isuzus. Could you kindly demystify this phenomenon and also drop in a word or two on efficiency and durability of the three.

Victor Dola.

From your description, I would guess either you are referring to obsolete models of these buses or maybe the respective drivers had different ideas on how to approach bus driving. The F330, for starters, is no longer on sale. It has since been replaced by the F310, which is just as quick but more fuel-efficient due to having a smaller engine, a 9,000cc five-cylinder unit compared to the F330’s 11,000cc six-cylinder.

When you say the Isuzu is “not good for speed and power in either flat or hilly surfaces”, I am tempted to think that you are referring to the old Isuzu MV118, which has been out of production for, what, 13 years now? It was replaced by the Isuzu MV 123, which is turbocharged and intercooled up to 270hp and 980Nm of torque, with a six-speed gearbox, and, from experience it is not exactly slow.

It might not have the sheer go of the Scania pair (which have 330hp and 310 hp respectively), but is works just fine on hilly and flat surfaces. Unless you were referring to the smaller FRR, in which case that is a lorry dressed as a bus, so forgive its lethargy on mountains.

The Nissan Diesel UD is another one. The CB31 SXN is a weak noisy thing which eventually found its calling in life — ferrying prisoners between courtrooms and jail. The updated version, the CB46 Turbo Intercooler, is a lot better: It is quieter, quite fast, and hugely reliable. Again, it is no match for the Swedes in making molehills out of mountains, but then again it is not THAT bad now, is it? Have you ever been in a CB31? Now, that one was POOR on the hills.

Anyway, the phenomenon of different performance capabilities… The Scanias use close-ratio gearboxes and taller final drives in the diffs (mechanical devices that transmit torques and rotation). This gives them almost unbelievable acceleration and hill-climbing power, but trims down their top speeds somewhat.

Not forgetting the advanced turbocharging AND turbo-compound technology that yields massive outputs from the relatively small engines — the F310, like I said, has a 9,000cc engine but it also develops the most torque: 1550Nm. The Nissan Diesel UD CB46 Turbo InterCooler does 290hp and 1,079Nm of torque, but from a 11,670cc engine. The Isuzu MV123 Turbo Intercooler also has a small unit; 9,800cc, giving 270hp and 980Nm.

Though the UD and the Isuzu are also turbocharged and intercooled, theirs are much simpler setups and are combined with taller, widely spaced ratios in the gearboxes and much smaller diffs to give high top speeds, but the acceleration and climbing power are slightly compromised. I hope this helps.

In terms of efficiency, the Scanias rule. Both of them. The Isuzu is not so bad, but sadly for the UD, it comes last. Durability sees the list almost being reversed. UDs do not die; they get sold and continue working on other routes.

They are harder to kill than a cockroach on steroids. Isuzus (MV 123) are ephemeral by comparison and are prone to turbo failure, especially when driven by people who did not take the time to listen when care for turbo engines was being explained to them. The Scanias fall somewhere in between.

Dear Baraza,

I am a die-hard enthusiast of the Peugeot pedigree and happy that for the first time in many months you critiqued the ‘Simba’ but dwelt on an old model. Anyway, to my problem. I have owned the Peugeot 405GL for six years and cannot complain except for a rear right suspension, which was eventually fixed.

However, due to two factors — my retirement and and the high cost of fuel— I approached my mechanic who suggested that we change its double carburettor to one fixed on a 305. It was fine until I noticed an increase temperature.

He replaced the cooling fan but now my three-month-old Chloride Exide battery is unable to crank the engine if the car stays static for a day. What is the problem? Would a 305 carburrator compromise power?Any known/tried benefit and/or damage?

Ossome.

I believe you installed the wrong carburettor in your Peugeot 405 GL. It is a, what, 1.8-litre? 2.0-litre? The smallest I would give it is 1.6 litres. The Peugeot 305, on the other hand, was most commonly found in 1.3-litre guise.

By installing a carburettor meant for a smaller engine into a bigger one, you are starving the bigger engine of fuel. The result is that it burns air and fuel in incorrect ratios. The ideal or stoichiometric air-fuel ratio is around 14.7:1. If it goes any lower, say 10:1, then the car is running rich — burning more fuel than it should for the air coming into the engine. If it goes any higher, say 17:1, then the car is running lean, i.e it is burning a lot less fuel for the air getting into the engine.

I believe the smaller carburettors have led you to the second circumstance: You are running lean. The symptoms are typical: a lean-running engine also runs very hot and it is hard to start because a lot of fuel is used in the cranking process and yet here you are, starving the engine even further with your small carburettor jets. And once it is running, yes, power will be severely compromised.
The only remedy is to revert to the original carburettors.

Dear Baraza,

First, you are doing great work. Your column is witty, informed, and clever. Keep it up.

Now, I like to keep my car very clean, so I hose down the engine, wax the body and tyres, and spray the undercarriage.

1. Does hosing the engine have any effect on new V-Tech engines?

2. Is it true that a buildup of dirt and oil affects the engine’s ability to cool down?

3. Does waxing and polishing affect the paint work?

4. What is dust-proof car paint?

5. Why does local paint work seem inferior to the original?

Lastly, I have come up with a fuel dispensing pump concept after getting conned by my driver. Who can I pitch this concept to?

Mathers Davies.

High praise indeed, Davis. I am flattered. Now, to your questions:

1. Hosing down the engine is never advisable. That powerful jet of water could easily make its way into nooks and crannies where it is not needed i.e into an electrical system, then you will find yourself in undesirable circumstances where your car will not start, or will not run properly, or the Check Engine Light is on and the diagnostics are not isolating the problem.

The best thing would be to wipe the engine with a wet/damp rag using water where the dirt is easy to get out and the relevant cleaning agents (degreaser and such) where necessary. Yes, it is more taxing physically, but it is the way to go.

2. Yes, that build-up causes cooling issues. While it may not interfere directly with your cooling system components, the grime and dirt around the engine forms an overcoat or a sweater. Part of the heat loss form an engine is through radiation. The heat build-up may sometimes exceed the cooling capabilities of the equipment available.

3. Only if you are using bad quality wax or polish. If anything, waxing and polishing your car is supposed to IMPROVE the appearance, not deteriorate it.

4. Some paints/waxes/polishes can get sticky in very hot sun, and then attract dust which then embeds itself in the goo. I think (I am not 100 per cent sure) dust-proof licks are those that stay crisp even when baked to within an inch of their lives, thus whatever dust falls on them can still be wiped off without any risk of damage to the paintwork.

5. I would say poor business practices. Profiteering. The need to make a quick buck without having to invest too many resources in a venture.

This device of yours: There are two ways you can sell it. The first is if you can mass-produce it yourself after approaching owners/proprietors of various petrol stations and convincing them that not only does the device actually work, but that they also need it, and need it now.

The second is to approach the multinationals that own the oil companies. You could sell you intellectual property rights to them or enjoy royalties for the rest of your life but that will only happen if they believe that it benefits them.

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No, they don’t make them like they used to

WHEN BMW announced last month that it was recalling 30,000 of its 2007 to 2010 X5 sport utility vehicles over the mere possibility that they could lose power brake assist, few took notice of the fact that the car manufacturer was not saying that the braking system was faulty, but that it could become faulty over time.

The announcement signalled how car safety has become absolutely non-negotiable in the motoring world.

In 2010 BMW recalled about 200,000 vehicles for the same problem, and this time they said the brake booster could fail, meaning that while the brakes would still function, the power assist could be lost.

BMW laid the problem to a check valve of the brake vacuum pump leaking a small amount of lubricating oil into the vacuum hose. If that reaches the brake booster, it could fail.

In another action, Chrysler says it is recalling 3,660 2003 to 2004 Dodge Vipers because the air bags might deploy without the vehicles being in an accident. Now, that is serious.

In a report to safety agencies, Chrysler said it recently determined that the high-performance sports cars had the same problem that required about 745,000 Jeeps to be recalled last year.

BMW and Chrysler described their recalls as voluntary, but once a manufacturer is aware of a safety problem it has five working days to tell the agency of its plan for a recall or face a civil fine.

As manufacturers grapple with the recalls, they are also taking in suggestions aimed at lessening the risks of “distracted driving” by voluntarily limiting the functions of electronic devices built into vehicles.

The suggestions focus on amenities, including communication, entertainment, and navigation devices that the makers include in their vehicles nowadays.

It could be a few years before any of the guidelines are adopted, but automakers have scrambled in recent years to offer the latest technology — whether 3-D displays, access to Facebook, internal Wi-Fi, or voice-activated calling.

A study showed that the visual and manual tasks required by hand-held phones and other devices tripled the risks of an accident. The study found that text messaging required drivers to take their eyes off the road for an average of 23.3 seconds total, for example.

The guidelines recommend limiting the amount of time drivers have to take their eyes off the road to perform any task to two seconds at a time and a total of 12 seconds.

Activists want automakers to make it impossible for drivers to use some electronic functions, like text messaging, Internet browsing, and video-based entertainment or communications unless the vehicle is stopped and is locked in “Park”.

Yes, that is how far we have come, from the days of a simple, rickety box to Wi-Fi and Facebook on the dashboard. Below, the evolution of car safety through the years:

1771: Experimental steam-driven tractor invented

1869: Earliest recorded automobile fatality

1889: First production of automobile, by Karl Benz

1889: First vehicle designed from scratch to be an automobile rather than a horse-drawn carriage fitted with an engine

1893: First budget for rural road development to serve wagons, coaches, and bicycles on dirt roads in the US

1895: George B. Selden is granted a US patent for a two-stroke automobile engine

1914: First ‘STOP’ sign introduced

1919: First three-colour traffic light installed

1930s: Official advocation for seat belts and padded dashboards

1934: First barrier crash test performed

1949: First safety cage rolls out, world’s first padded dashboard fitted

1951: Car doors fitted with safety latches to prevent door from opening during accidents

1958: ABS brake testing on motorcycles shows a 30 per cent improvement in braking system

1958: United Nations establishes an international auto safety forum

1968: Front seat belts required by law in US for new model cars. After seat belts became mandatory, a 50 per cent overall reduction was reported in the number of drivers per 100 vehicles being admitted to hospital

1969: British research results in widespread 55mph speed limits and drink-driving laws

1973: Side-impact standards required for all new cars

1974: First big lawsuit over safety item pitting Richard Grimshaw against Ford Motoring Company

1978: First jurisdiction in the world passes passenger safety law

1979: Road safety bodies begin crash-testing popular cars and publishing the test results to consumers

1984: First seat belt use law

1991: Volvo introduces side-impact protection system

2008: Tyre pressure monitoring systems are required on all new cars and light tracks

2010: Pedestrian detection system makes its debut

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The baby Range Rover: An understated pleasure

I was going to start off this article making analogies involving fashion accessories — about how they are high on looks and low on practicality — and I also intended to talk about the unwise move of deploying the pop star wife of a football legend in the automotive world to influence the end product of what, we have to admit, is the most profound Land Rover vehicle ever since Charles Spencer King installed a Chrysler V8 into the very first Range Rover car.

I even thought of touching on the defining characteristics of one Judas Iscariot, a man for whom the word “loyalty” was Roman to his Jewish “sell-out”.

Basically, I was not planning on being kind to the Evoque, the latest and most controversial Range Rover car, ever. Here is why.

Range Rovers have been typified over the years by several key ingredients. They are tall, massive, seat five (or more), have full-time 4WD, and contain six or more cylinders in their engines.

They were also thirsty, most of the time. The Evoque is none of these. Range Rovers have also been manly cars and the manifestation of an engineer’s passion.

This one, the Evoque, was designed by a woman, not even an “engineeress”, so to speak, but a diva from the now-defunct British girl band called the Spice Girls.

It is like asking Beyoncé Knowles, former lead of Destiny’s Child, to come up with the new Scania prime mover. Sounds like a corporation committing suicide, right? Wrong.

What Mrs David Beckham, née Victoria Caroline Adams, unleashed on us is nothing short of epic. Again, here is why.

The engine

While Range Rovers past have always packed 2.5-litre plus six — or eight — shooters under the hood, the Evoque arrived toting a puny four-cylinder with a single turbo.

This flouts all known automotive technology rules: Range Rovers are supposed to have massive engines, and nowadays nobody does single turbos anymore.

To eliminate lag without resorting to an anti-lag system (ALS), which is dangerous to both engine and pedestrians as it shoots flames out of the exhaust pipe, most engine builders use twin turbos; a small one for low revs, complemented by a larger one for full top end power.

The brochure says: “The Si4 petrol engine is a lightweight all aluminium unit…” I believe them. Driving the Evoque, one would be hard pressed to tell that there is even an engine up front.

So even is the weight distributed through the front chassis components that balance is not a point one would want to raise when criticising this vehicle.

The brochure also says: “It uses the latest direct injection technology and advanced turbocharging…” Again, I believe them.

So cleanly and smoothly does this engine run, you would not be fooled into thinking it belongs in a cheaper car — that is courtesy of the direct injection.

But more important is the authoritative pulling power that is accessible from low revs. Now, that is the turbo. Most single turbo setups suffer from tremendous lag or very narrow torque bands (or even both), but the Evoque’s engine is something else.

From as low as 1200 rpm, pedal-to-the-metal antics yield results, and impressive results at that. Acceleration is instantaneous and torque delivery is linear. Woe unto any competitive drivers of lesser cars who would want to take this on.

There is also twin independent variable valve timing that allows economy when the driver is circumspect with the hot pedal and haste when he turns lead-footed.

It works, believe me, it does.

With a three-cylinder economy on demand, it is actually a four-cylinder, emits a five-cylinder growl under WOT (wide open throttle), gives six-cylinder smoothness, delivers V8 torque, and still possesses the top-end screaming power of a V12. Dr Jekyll’s doings have nothing on a road test of the little Evoque.

Performance

That single turbo suffers from so little lag you would hardly notice it at all. At full tilt, the Evoque will humiliate anything affordable on the road right now — it even shamed its ancestor, the grandfather of all SUVs, the Vogue, on an open road.

(If you were driving a black Range Rover Vogue along the northern bypass on 17 May and a tiny, grey Evoque pulled away from you despite your best efforts, that was me. Sorry).

While the top-end power is quite impressive, there was still a moment of weakness somewhere. The car will pull from rest to 180 km/h effortlessly, but between 180 and 200, it gets a little breathless.

Beyond 200 requires an autobahn to find out, and we do not have one here. Yet.

Power had a dead spot somewhere, but torque did not. Overtaking was not even an epiphany, nor was it even momentous: there is no adjective majestic enough to describe what happened the first time I sent the pedal all the way to the floor while on the wrong side of the road.

The figures in the mirrors could not disappear backwards any faster if I was in a low-flying aircraft. Stupid grins were available all round as my road test crew suddenly realised that we were not in yet another ordinary 4-cylinder mini-SUV.

Sum up: While the general consensus is that BMW builds the best engines in the world, the Automotive Engine of the Year last year was from the bigger Range Rovers.

It was the 4.4-litre TDV8, now available in the Vogue and the Sport. The Evoque’s 4-cylinder mill proves that this was not a lucky hit; the engineers at Jaguar Land Rover are on a roll.

Tip: Use the cruise control. At 80 km/h, it will stick to fifth gear at 1950 rpm, but it will not stay in sixth (1400 rpm), even if you force it. Sixth gear works best at 95 km/h and 1600 rpm, which, I believe, is the most economical state of this car.

The suspension

More magic here; the little Rangie uses magneto-rheological dampers and shocks. This simply means that the suspension stiffness varies in real time according to the prevailing conditions, and is controlled by an electrical current and billions of tiny little iron filings in the shock absorber fluid.

When the current is off (such as on smooth, steady surfaces), the little metal bits just float around giving a comfortable and slightly floaty, pillow-like feel.

During hard cornering, an electrical current runs along the metal casing of the shocks, causing the iron filings to bunch up together and stiffen the suspension, thus improving handling by eliminating body roll.

This is the same setup used in the Audi R8 sports car. It is also used in the most powerful road-going Ferrari car ever made, the 599.

Ride and handling

This being a Range Rover, no matter how small, it is a given that from ordinary road use one would expect ultra-smooth ride quality and quietness. Enter our handling test course.

Anybody who has driven from Nyeri town to Nanyuki knows of the smooth and sinuous tarmac that lies just outside Nyeri. Sweeping S-curves, tight hairpins coupled with blind switchbacks and no run-off area whatsoever define this five-kilometre stretch of bitumen.

A sneeze at any point along this course from the driver would mean instant death. We wrung the little Evoque’s neck here, but the tyres would not give, nor would the suspension, nor would the steering. Bliss.

Taking those tight turns at 85 km/h yielded no understeer. There was also no tyre squeal and no body roll. The only downside was that this is a two-way road; start clipping apexes and you might end up a statistic.

Sum up: This is a GTI car, a performance hatchback, a luxury saloon, and an SUV all rolled into one, with the focus bending towards the performance hatchback. Many tried to keep up along this stretch of our test route and many failed.

The styling

Being a footballer’s wife, a pop star, and a businesswoman exposed Mrs Beckham to the finer things in life, and that is what she has tried to replicate here.

The Evoque looks a lot like the Range Stormer I talked about some time back, only this time there is clearly a feminine shade and shadow on the silhouette.

Really clever cues include a three-quarter length skylight roof. The massive tyres are pushed to the very edges of the vehicle body, not only lending the car a sporty look, but this is also responsible for the sublime handling.

Lastly, the roof tapers backwards from the top edge of the front windscreen to the back windscreen. The side mirrors are also cleverly designed but massive, and could be a visual impediment on oblique junctions.

A bit of bad and good

The tapering roofline has a negative effect: it robs the car of rear headroom and boot space, and creates a very tiny rear window, thus impeding the rear view.

The window shoulder line is also a bit high, creating a pillbox effect for the driver and passengers. First time in the car feels like a sniper’s hideout, so it does take some getting used to, however much you fiddle with the seat controls.

The massive side mirrors create huge blind spots at junctions, so a little care is needed.

The body styling and the skylight roof, on the other hand, will generate more attention than you have ever wanted.

Not even the police are immune to the Beckham effect, gawking as the car weaves through their stingers (thus forgetting to ask themselves why three scruffy, sweaty, grinning men would be driving a car that fancy on a road that lonely and at a speed that absurd).

Sum up: Attention seekers, your Google equivalent has arrived. Looks of lust, looks of envy, and looks of approval will henceforth be your lot.

The road test

As tests go, this has been our most thorough to date. Pity there is not enough space to report everything. We did a dyno run: power hit 160 whp (which translates to about 190 bhp — the traction control and ABS kept cutting in); 336 lb ft or 458 Nm/46 kgm of torque; and top speed (225 km/h, or 140 mph).

We also played with the toys (Bluetooth can be a headache sometimes). In fact, we played with everything, short of disassembling the entire car; not a wise proposition for something worth Sh12 million or so.

Doing it differently

I will make no bones about it: my car reviews are not always regarded highly by those in the motor vehicle business. So it came as a shock to me that I was invited to drive the Evoque out of the blue.

And not in the typical Kenyan road test fashion where you are supplied with a car, a driver, and a security guard (for the car, not for you) and required to fill out 1,300 pages of paper work, before being driven round the nearest roundabout then told to get out, go back home, and write something nice.

You will have the car for two days, they said. Who is the driver and who is the security guard, I wanted to know. You will be on your own, they said.

It does not make sense, I countered. Why would I drive today, give the car back, then drive again tomorrow? You will not, they chimed. You will go home with the car, then give it back tomorrow, they added. We trust you, they cooed. What is more, we are giving you a full tank of fuel, they gushed.

I did not go home. A Range Rover Evoque, two test drivers, and a photographer: the wisest thing to do was to point the car towards the biggest and most picturesque mountain available and gun it.

That is exactly what we did, and in my mental checklist, on the dotted line next to the entry labelled “Most Spectacular Road Test, 2012”, I quietly filled in “Range Rover Evoque Si4”.

The tank was empty when I handed the car back.