SMMT test day (Society Motor Manufacturers and Traders)
Not a week goes by when we aren’t talking about yet another compact crossover or SUV powered by electricity. It’s a burgeoning market, and no self-respecting manufacturer wouldn’t have a presence here (although BMW do seem to be talking their time bringing the iX3 to the UK), and so we have to put them through their paces and help you decide what deserves your vote. And we will.
That being said, it isn’t easy getting press cars at dates that suit us. After all, manufacturers have a wide variety of media outlets to satisfy, and it’s not like they have a never-ending row of these cars just lying about in case anyone should want one. Thankfully we do have them booked in, and soon we will subject them all to a full AutoEV road test review.
However, before then, we were invited to the annual SMMT (Society Motor Manufacturers and Traders) test day at the wonderful Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire. This is an annual event (although the 2020 event was cancelled for obvious reasons) and allows us media types to wander around those present and try their wares out on the variety of closed circuits within the facility. This is an industry testing site, not open to the public, where cars can be pushed to their limits in many different circumstances. There is a 2 mile continually banked circular track where high-speed runs can be simulated. A stellar test of car and driver, as it is a never-ending corner which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Disorientating on the eyes and punishing on the neck muscles.
A tight ‘city course’ allows you to evaluate how quick a car’s steering reacts with constant lefts and rights and full stops. An ‘off-road’ course that has both easy and difficult sections depending on what the car (or more likely driver) is capable of. A mile straight for acceleration and braking. Belgian pave to brutalise suspension and spine alike. And the wonderfully technical ‘Hill Route’ which anyone who has watched James Bond chase down Le Chiffre (failing in spectacular fashion and writing off his Aston Martin DBS in the process) in ‘Casino Royale’ will recognise.
And it is here that I had the opportunity to briefly drive the new offerings from Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Ford, now all asking you to consider their entrants to this market sector. This is not a definitive verdict, but more an initial thought on the cars before we put them through their paces with us over a longer period.
I start with the Mercedes-Benz EQA 250. Much like its larger EQC sibling, this compact electric SUV is derived from a car that would normally have an internal combustion engine powering it, the GLA. It’s clean looking, but ultimately, a little forgettable. Stepping aboard, you are faced with the now familiar Mercedes twin screen dashboard, nicely positioned steering wheel, and a quality that only really trails Audi. Setting off is easily done via the slim transmission lever sprouting from the steering column. The first thing that makes itself known to you, is how everything else doesn’t. In other words, it is superbly quiet.
I decide that the first test of this trio will be two high-speed laps of the bowl, simulating autobahn speeds. The bowl is marked out into 5 lanes, the highest, most steeply banked, is the preserve of three-figure speeds, so I’ll stick to the 4th lane at an indicated 85mph. And again, that refinement is the most glaring attribute. Barely any wind noise, and the road noise is at the very minimum. The driving position is excellent, and the car tracks straight and true.
At the end of the second lap, I peel off and head over to the hill route. It’s a demanding route, the width of a minor A-road/B-road, but, for obvious reasons, one way. At the start of it, there is a climb, but you need to stick to the right hand side to avoid the integrated rumble strips, and then it’s a quick, right, left and right again on a heavily right-cambered corner downhill to a long, double apex left-hander. The rest of the route is punctuated by deeply camboured bends, steep gradients, heavy compressions and blind crests. There’s even a severe crest where you can put some air between the tyres and the road surface.
But not today. Not in an electric compact SUV. The EQA handles the course with aplomb, with meaty steering and good body control. The ride quality is good also, although to be fair, this isn’t a full road test on a variety of surfaces, so I will leave ultimate judgment until I’ve spent more time with all three cars.
I leave the hill route for one last flying lap of the bowl again, and then return to the car to its place outside the Mercedes unit. Over to the Audi.
The Q4 is a handsome beast. The one I have isn’t the sleeker Sportback bodystyle, but the more upright of the two. Immediately, the interior feels familiar. Superb build quality, supportive seats, and good space. Not quite as “techy” as the EQA, but with its own individual merits.
On the bowl, the wind noise is more prominent, especially around the wing mirrors and A-pillars. Road noise is fine, and stability is good, but that rush of air just in front of you likes to be heard.
But it’s the demands of the hill route that show the limitations of the Q4. It doesn’t feel as confident, pushing wide in some bends with more prominent understeer. I arrive at corners having to make too much adjustment to the steering and throttle than I did in the Mercedes. It genuinely feels way out of its depth here, and despite being on my own, you just know that if I had been carrying passengers on a demanding road, they’d soon be asking me to slow down. One more lap of the bowl confirms that the Mercedes is once more the victor between the two Germans when it comes to refinement. Time to saddle-up the Mustang now.
As I said, this isn’t a thorough comparison as the cars I drove were possibly very different in power, battery size and specification, hence there is no talk here of performance and usability. That can wait until we have them with us for a proper evaluation.
Out on the banking, the Mustang falls between the two German stools. Quieter than the Audi, but still trailing the Mercedes. I wonder what the hill route will bring.
And again, it’s the same. Not sharing the same composure that the Mercedes seemed to have in abundance, but certainly more adjustable and lenient than the Audi. I can’t wait to see how they all compare on the road, as the results here are under very extreme circumstances.
I finish with the Mach E and return it. Knowing that the Audi shares a lot of its componentry with the other MEB-platform cars from the Volkswagen Group (the ID.4 and Skoda Enyaq) it’s hard to take in that the Audi is so out of its depth. But then this is, as I said, a place where the public will never use them in this form of test. What it has shown me, however, is that when we do put them through the proper AutoEV road test, each of them will have their own strengths and weaknesses, and not necessarily in the order you’d expect to find them.
Thankfully, we don’t have too long to wait.