Day 1: Range Rover Evoque Convertible
The Range Rover Evoque convertible is a hall of mirrors. What you see might not always be what you get, and what you get you probably didn’t see the first time. Interesting car, this one: it looks pretty, and I do mean pretty, not beautiful, which means I would never buy one – at least not for myself. The first we laid eyes on it was a couple of months back, and I will confess: I did not pay much attention to the launch or to the car itself. You could blame the race-spec 993 Porsche 911 GT2 freleasing all of 700bhp through its tailpipes a few yards behind me, mopping the floor with a race-spec BMW M6 and an equally race-spec Mercedes-Benz AMG GT. An automotive German civil war with a Wagnerian thunderclap for a soundtrack on a South African racetrack on a hot weekday afternoon fresh off a glitch-ridden flight sure beats the presentation of a jacuzzi-style, mall-crawling urban assault vehicle rumoured to be designed by a woman. My hosts were not amused by my ADHD-grade lack of attention.
That is why they brought me back, to face the ragtop Evoque, again. To make sure my scatter-brained tendencies didn’t rear themselves again, they even allowed me to drive it for a while. The report is fairly straightforward: it drives just like tin-top Evoques before it have done, and it packs the exact same electronic gimmickry ubiquitous throughout the Jaguar Land Rover range (now available with Internet, but don’t ask me how that works). However, with open-air motoring come some new experiences that I should probably mention.
It is easy to look cool, like my colleague and I did by selecting a Black ops, black-spec, black-on-black cabriolet: black rims, black badges, black paint, black interior; it’s not just Martin Luther and Barack Obama who are Black. Mr Busy Signal. Our car was, too.
It looks a touch “gangsta”, if the “gangsta” in question is either metrosexual — fearlessly in touch with his X chromosomes — or a woman.
It easy to look silly, like my colleague and I did, by cranking up the stereo to 51 while creeping through Johannesburg’s less seedy neighborhoods. I must warn you, dear reader, the quickest way to draw hate is to helm an ostentatious, expensive vehicle while broadcasting your questionable taste in music to the rest of the world that doesn’t really care and is trying to go about its business without your frankly annoying distraction.
So, the car. I think it achieves its primary goals, which, in order of priority, are:
- Draw attention to oneself. You won’t even need the loud, suspicious music for this to happen. On the freeway, we got several hoots and waves of approval from other drivers (who probably couldn’t hear the atrocities blaring from our sound system). Of note is that these drivers were predominantly female, in equally trendy, if less conspicuous, Euro-hatchbacks like Mini Coopers and Renault Clios. The target market of the Evoque “Roadster” has been singled out.
- Purvey the joys of open-top motoring but from a mini-SUV perspective. The relatively high driving position is there, relatively because in most cabriolets, one is usually inches off the ground. At least with the Evoque, you are more than two feet off the ground. This makes for a good view out, a view further enhanced by the lack of a roof, or windows, or pillars around us. It feels like sailing a speedboat on an impossibly calm sea, or a giant swimming pool. It also makes conversation impossible at certain speeds, but then again, I probably should point out that the loud music probably had something to do with it too. Also not helping the conversation was one of my test protocols, which I sometimes use to silence vocal passengers, of flooring the throttle exiting a junction.
Would I buy one? I’ll tell you this: the likely buyers of this vehicle hail from a very specific demographic. I would only buy it for my daughter when she joins an Ivy League university, and that is only when my bank balance finally reaches nine figures. I’m still a long way away from that, so no, I wouldn’t buy one.
Day 2: Supercharged Jaguars
When that supercharged Jaguar XE saloon piloted by a professional racing driver squeaked to a dead halt from 100km/h within the space of the average middle-class backyard, there was plenty of food for thought for everyone. The idea of a “panic stop” from the same speed in a certain twin-turbo Subaru Legacy BH5 with an intermittent ABS warning light and rapidly balding Chinese tyres is screeching noisily across the length of two football fields in a smelly cloud of bright blue tyre smoke before coming to a shaky halt not exactly facing the way it was originally. Sweaty palms and clenched glutes are optional extras, as are white knuckles and a 350bpm heartbeat. The lesson was road safety. The topic? The three-second following rule. Welcome to the Jaguar experience.
Now, many of you might think that my job description is solely a holistic holiday of hedonism and haste, and you’d mostly be right – when I’m not bent over my typewriter trying to come up with another week’s output. However, you need to earn your stripes to do this; not only do you require the necessary skills as a wordsmith, you also have to be a bit special behind the wheel. A refresher course for a middle-level manager entails seminars and PowerPoint presentations in a hotel or resort somewhere. A refresher course for a motoring journalist involves skidpans, gymkhanas and a slew of supercharged Jaguars. I attended traffic college, which is nothing like a driving school. Welcome to the nebulous world of an auto journo in school.
Lesson 1: The Workings of Traction Control and Stability Control Systems…. or “How To Drift”
Tools of Trade: Two Jaguar F Type Roadsters, a V6 and a V8, both supercharged.
The Setup: Two figure-of-eight skidpans.
In a nutshell, the traction control kicks in when one or more tyres lose grip and start spinning. The modus operandi is fairly simple: it cuts off engine power until that tyre stops spinning before restoring the energy supply. Stability control takes things a step further: not only does it cut power, it might channel torque from end to end or even apply the brakes to keep the vehicle facing the direction it is supposed to. It is activated when sensors all over the car detect that steering angle, throttle input, vehicle behaviour and yaw angle all show signs of “conflict of interest”.
The lesson here was the effect these systems have on the dynamics of a motor vehicle so equipped. The skidpan was extremely slippery close to the centres of the circles making the figure eights, and extremely grippy just outside it. This made for an interesting drive: with both systems on, engine power was cut early, ensuring you won’t slide at all, no matter how hard you mashed the throttle of the V8 sports car. With the traction control off, the car did slide a little, controllably so, but not enough to initiate a proper drift. With both systems off, doughnuts were not only possible, they were done gleefully, but doughnuts aside, I did what I intended to do from the moment I laid eyes on the setup: drift a supercharged V8 Jaguar.
You have to be quick with your wrists and deft with your right foot to prevent spinning out – that’s how greasy the skid pan was. You also have to hold the car tight within the slippery surface because once a single tyre gains grip on the outer fringes, you will understeer briefly and your chain drift will be broken. However, get it right and the little roadster dances beautifully to your song. Judicious throttle applications and constant sawing at the wheel meant I could take the figure eight entirely sideways endlessly, grinning like a kid in a candy store right up to the moment when I touched the grippy surface and straightened out.
The V6 car was a different kettle of fish. For one, the instructor was less smiley and had a different rulebook. He insisted one take the outside line, which makes it harder to tailor your drifting line, and which meant the nearside tyres almost always had grip. That made drifting difficult: to stay sideways you had to stay on the power, which is counterintuitive once the back of the car steps out. It was almost impossible to drift this car properly: you either pushed the nose wide or you spun in a tight little circle. Given the behaviour, methinks this may have been an AWD…
Self-awarded Result: A-
Lesson 2: Spatial Awareness at High Speeds…. or “Pretend You Are Nico Rosberg Gunning for a World Championship”
Tools of Trade: Numerous… Jaguar XE, XF, XJ, F Type and F Pace, all supercharged except for the XJ, which is a diesel twin turbo.
The Setup: A short pseudo-racetrack looping around the perimeter of the traffic college’s technical wing.
The comparison I earlier there between the XE saloon and my own ageing wagon highlights the stark difference between modern cars and… ancient metal. In a brand new premium car like a Jaguar, one might find oneself doing illegal speeds in no time at all, and it won’t feel like hustling along like it would in something older or less refined. Enter the track test.
This was a combination of wide-open throttle, full-anchor mode, braking points, trail braking, part throttle, steering inputs and racing lines. To fully understand all these, we started off with a recce lap, which I did in the diesel XJ. Don’t be fooled by the oily fuel that goes into its tank, this leviathan saloon can keep up with its petrol colleagues with no shortness of breath. Then we were let loose in the cars.
The whole idea was to give us an inkling of determining how fast you are really going (quickly glance at the speedometer just in time to see yourself nudging 200) and when to brake effectively from certain speeds. It was also a lesson on when to let off the brakes on corner entry and when to throttle up during corner exits. In other words, how to race professionally.
This is what I observed: the “intelligent” automatic transmission in the V6 F Type negated the need to use the paddle-shifts, such was the aplomb with which it timed the up and down shifts. The system even blipped the throttle on the downshift, which occurs high up in the rev range when in Sport Mode, which meant that 95 per cent of the time you were right on the power band. Trust me; you don’t really need to choose your own ratios. The result is a surreal track experience and a sneaky suspicion that in the right hands on the right track, this little coupé could outgun its bigger V8 brother. It sounded gnarly and brutal, popping and snarling on a trailing throttle.
The bigger V8 brother is, of course, the daddy and 542bhp in a straight line causes electricity to shoot up and down your limbs and your fingers to tremble with excitement. While the V6 is aurally exciting, the thrills in the V8 come from raw power. It behooves you to be circumspect with the hot pedal should you take possession of one of these.
The diesel XJ saloon picks up its skirts and sprints with the rest of the pack. Easily the biggest, heaviest car and burning the wrong fuel, it would be easy to dismiss it as the runt of the litter, but it isn’t. It is still properly quick and handles its heft with alacrity, dimensions notwithstanding. Pedal travel is long with the accelerator, which means on the penultimate straight, it will take a while before your foot meets the firewall, which in turn means probably a top speed of 180km/h before you have to brake hard for the medium left curve leading into the staging area. One driver saw 225km/h on this stretch in the F Type V8 during one stint.
The XE saloon is a revelation. It’s not the most powerful, the most pretty, the most luxurious nor the most expensive, but it is the one I enjoyed driving the most. Jaguar aimed squarely at the BMW 3 Series when building this car and I daresay they have come up with something dangerously close to the ultimate driving machine. It is easy to drive this car hard, which I had no qualms doing. The weight distribution is perfect. The dimensions are just right. The response is immediate. This, or a BMW? This… so much this! The BMW might edge slightly ahead (barely noticeable) in absolute dynamics, but the concerto comprising the guttural exhaust note and the high-pitched supercharger whine is music the Germans can only dream about composing…
Self-awarded Result: A+
Lesson 3: Psychological Awareness and Mental Reaction Times… or “The Most Difficult Car-based Competition I Have Ever Participated In, Which I Lost”
Tools of Trade: Jaguar F Pace
The Setup: a dynamic gymkhana course with pairs of smart cones placed randomly in a 50mx50m (or something) space.
What is this? It looks like a gymkhana, but not as we know it. This is one of only six systems in the world and the only one of its kind in Africa. It is a complicated mess involving gigantic “smart” cones topped with bright LED lights and a control panel not entirely dissimilar to what you might find at NASA. This is what we call a “dynamic” autocross: the course changes shape as you drive on it, and from the few cones we had on site, we were told there were 150 different courses derivable from that one layout.
This is how it works: enter the field from one side and head for the nearest pair of cones with green lights flashing at the top. Only one pair will have these lights, while another pair will have flashing blue lights. All the rest remain unlit. The green pair are the ones you are supposed to drive through immediately, keeping the car dead centre between them — no racing lines here — with the blue pair indicating the next set you should go to. Once you drive through the green pair, the lights go off, the blue lights turn green and another pair lights up blue, and so on. The light distribution is completely random. This means no two drivers will drive the same course and no one has a chance to memorise the layout. It is equally difficult for everyone.
The outcome is just as convoluted. The results are based on three parameters: how long you take to drive through the entire set (the shortest time is the most desirable), how far you drive as you hunt cone pair after cone pair (the shortest distance gets most points) and how accurately you centre the car between the cones throughout (expressed as a percentage). This is a test of how keen you are about your surroundings (spotting the ever-changing sets of lights), how quickly you can think of a path to take through an obstacle course (minimising the distance you have to cover from cone to cone) and how well you judge gaps and distances (centring the car). Ambulance drivers belong here.
It was not easy, I will grant them that. I was pleased with my result: garnering 42,000-odd points and 84 per cent accuracy (oh yeah!) until I saw how far down the merit list I was placed. Someone had gathered 46,911 points with 87.49 per cent accuracy. Drat!
Self-awarded result: B+
It’s not all fun and games out here. Jaguar Land Rover were really serious about the road safety thing, and they could not stress enough the important role we writers play as ambassadors thereof, and in good time too: the Saturday night traffic disaster in which dozens of Kenyans lost their lives is evidence enough that we are still wildly adrift when it comes to minding our welfare on the highways.
My social media is chock-full of people deriding the Landcruiser Prado for its lack of stability when driven fast. Who asked you to drive fast, Hamilton-Rosberg-Vettel wannabe, more so in an off-road vehicle optimised for crawling over large rocks rather than ripping up asphalt?
If you cut yourself in the kitchen, do we blame the knife for its sharpness or does the culpability lie in your own carelessness?
Arrive alive, geniuses; take your foot off the accelerator if you feel the car might be a handful. Look around you constantly, watching for potential hazards. Adhere to road signs and traffic ordinances, even when you sincerely believe they might not make much sense.
Please, let’s take care of ourselves. See you next week…