Fleet News

Honda NSX/ Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG/Porsche 911

Honda

Review

In Fleet News' analysis of the UK's largest contract hire companies, the likes of Toyota, Lexus and Honda are invariably found at the top of the reliability study of nearly 800,000 vehicles.

Perhaps the manufacturer most convinced of its reliability is Honda, which offers a three year/90,000 mile warranty in the UK against 60,000 mile cover for most other manufacturers.

The most aspirational car in the Honda range is the NSX, but it is surprising such a car still exists. Its exaggerated styling is a throwback to the late 1980s when Honda was utterly dominant in Formula One thanks to the combined genius of drivers Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, the McLaren team and its own engineers. Indeed, Senna was involved in developing the handling of the car.

The NSX arrived in the UK in 1991 and was the first production car made from aluminium. Its first major upgrade was a larger capacity engine and six-speed transmission in 1998.

However, last year there were major visual changes – 1980s-style pop-up headlamps were changed for fixed units, revised spoilers and air intakes, reducing drag and improving balance between front and rear. Meanwhile, suspension changes also improved the handling of the NSX.

It is still one of the most outrageous looking cars on the road, its design still firmly rooted in the cash-rich 1980s, when supercars such as the Ferrari Testarossa, Porsche 911 and Lamborghini Countach were splashed over posters in Athena.

Back then it was rare to see sports coupes with 400bhp or more, and the NSX's aluminium body and 253bhp (as it was then from its 3.0-litre engine) would have given it a fighting chance in the performance stakes.

However, with car makers now routinely achieving 400bhp or 500bhp for luxury saloons, the 276bhp in the NSX seems a little tame, especially as front-wheel drive hatchbacks are now reaching nearly 250bhp.

The interior of the NSX has the aura of an uncompromising supercar. The cosy two-seater cabin has a centre console that cascades outwards as it flows down to the gearstick, while many functions are relegated to extra stalks sprouting from the steering column housing.

Perhaps the feature that dates it the most is the odometer with the miles indicated by numbers on a revolving barrel.

Luggage space amounts to barely 150 litres, while a passenger airbag takes up handy storage space that might have been devoted to a generous glove compartment.

The seat cushions and backrests adjust forwards and backwards while the steering wheel position can be moved in and out, but not up and down.

It means taller drivers – those 6ft and over – will miss out on the ideal driving position and will never really feel comfortable behind the wheel of the NSX. One of the surprises of the interior is the impression of space created by the low dashboard and huge windscreen. Despite the roof being less than four feet high you don't feel dominated and oppressed by taller vehicles on the road.

All concerns about the dated aspects of the NSX and worries about practicality fade on the open road. Watch the rev counter needle climb past 3,000rpm and the 3.2-litre V6 engine loses its mild-mannered round-town demeanour.

The mid-mounted VTEC unit makes its presence felt behind the driver as speed and noise increase. The six-cylinder wail has the tenor of a thoroughbred race engine and its fruity tones are addictive.

The noise certainly adds to the impression of speed as the NSX accelerates, while the short gearchange and sharp steering make the Honda feel more agile than many high-performance heavyweights.

Its low centre of gravity means there's plenty of grip in the dry while traction control helps keep the back end in line in the wet, when it is prone to snap out if the rear wheels are given too much provocation.

Honda claims the NSX will accelerate from 0-62mph in 5.7 seconds with a maximum of 168mph given the legal opportunity to stretch its legs.

But these figures also allow us to put the NSX into context. At £60,000 on-the-road, it is more expensive than many high-performance sports coupes and a £25,000 Subaru Impreza WRX STi covers the 0-62mph sprint in 5.2 seconds.

But the NSX has exclusivity on its side. Honda has sold only a handful of NSXs in the UK each year since it was introduced, preserving its desirability as a used car. There could be fewer NSXs on UK roads from the last 12 years than the number of Porsche 911s sold in the last 12 months.

CAP Monitor expects the manual NSX coupe to retain 39% of its value after three years/60,000 miles – some way off the Porsche, but better than a £60,000 luxury saloon.

And Honda, the world's biggest producer of engines – it builds them at a rate of 10 million a year – claims never to have had a failure with a VTEC engine. This is quite a feat.

Fantasy Fleet verdict

HAVE you got a member of staff who still listens to Duran Duran and wears a speckled grey suit? Well, the NSX is the car for them – although it's dated it still does the business.

Model: Honda NSX
Engine (cc): 3,179
Power (bhp/rpm): 276/7,300
Torque (lb-ft/rpm): 220/5,300
Max speed (mph): 168
0-62mph (sec): 5.7
Comb fuel consumption (mpg): 22.8
CO2 emissions (g/km): 291
Transmission: 6-sp manual
Fuel tank capacity (l): 70
Service interval (miles): 9,000/ 12 months
On sale: Now
Contract hire rate: N/A
Price (OTR): £60,000

911 is the everyday supercar

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To understand just how woven into the fabric of rich people's lives the 911 is, it is worth driving one through the more salubrious neighbourhoods of London.

After a 10-minute crawl through Hampstead or St John's Wood in this car, you start to feel like part of the furniture, as the spot-the-911s game reaches three figures. Very expensive, hand-crafted furniture that only very rich people can afford, but part of it nevertheless. It is testament to the car that where there is money, there is the 911, and lots of them.

Many of them are bought with business money – Porsche reckons one in 10 are registered to businesses – but many more are bought by drivers opting out of company car schemes.

Porsche has managed to walk a similar tightrope as BMW has done with the 3-series by becoming very popular and populous at the same time as being exclusive, although obviously in a more rarified market and with lesser numbers.

But luxury is a state of mind that doesn't like to be the same as the Jones-Kashoggis next door. So for a car to manage that particular trick it has to be a top quality product with a fashion-proof, timeless image. It has to be an icon.

Step forward the entry-level Carrera 2. It might be the bottom of the range, but it still costs a not inconsiderable £56,635 on-the-road. In total there are 20 911 variants, many of which are only differentiated to the naked, uninformed eye by the size of their spoiler and air intakes. At the top of the range is the GT2 at an eye-watering £116,000.

So the Carrera 2 is the poor relation, relatively speaking, but it doesn't feel like it.

With the 3.6-litre flat six engine churning out 320bhp, there is enough grunt to make you wonder what the extra £50,000 for a GT2 is spent on. Can it bend light or slow down time? The Carrera 2 will hit 60mph in five seconds flat, which is a pretty good starting point for a range.

The engine really is the star here. It is situated in its customary awkward spot over the rear wheels and the flat six has a distinctive burr and bark that hardly any other unit can match. The six-speed gearbox ensures a pretty constant burst of acceleration, although the motor does need to be stoked with 3,000rpm to really get it charging.

And it is under hard acceleration that the unique layout of engine over rear wheels becomes noticeable. The nose will lift as the weight sweeps backwards and the steering becomes lighter and more fidgety. At this point the logical and emotional parts of your brain need to come to an understanding.

The sensation is unnerving, but after a week of driving there was no evidence to suggest the front wheels were giving up grip – the suspension on the 911 has been developed for decades and knows how to come to terms with the anomalies in the car's design. Once the logical part of the brain has won the battle, the Carrera 2 is a blast.

The gearbox slips easily between ratios and the brakes would stop a runaway juggernaut on a six pence. The clutch is a little heavy, and the steering wheel, as it always has been, is oddly large. But that is nitpicking. The 911 is a car that is almost blemish-free.

So what about the Porsche as a company car? In a necessary and rigorous examination of its credentials, I found there was plenty of room for a week's shopping in the nose and it is a comfortable and relaxed long distance cruiser. The cabin has a light look but a wonderfully solid feel. Everything about this car oozes quality.

The 911 also has a fantastic reputation for reliability – a sports car that can be used every day of the year, in all types of weather. On the subject of day-to-day running, after three years and 60,000 miles, the 911 will be worth 52% or £29,625 according to CAP Monitor. It will also do 25mpg if you treat it nicely.

Fantasy Fleet verdict

For a managing director wanting a car with class, speed and a dash – albeit only a little bit – of prudence about it, the 911 is the default option.

Model: Porsche 911 Carrera 2
Engine (cc): 3,596
Power (bhp/rpm): 320/4,250
Torque (lb-ft/rpm): 274/6,800
Max speed (mph): 177
0-62mph (sec): 5.0
Comb fuel consumption (mpg): 25.4
CO2 emissions (g/km): 269
Transmission: 6-sp manual
Fuel tank capacity (l): 64
Service interval (miles): 12,000
On sale: Now
Contract hire rate: £1,000
Price (OTR): £56,635

A soft-top bruiser for the smoother user-chooser

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USER-chooser drivers love convertibles – it's their way of breaking free from the shackles of mundane company cars and stamping their mark of individuality on the company car park.

And these days they're spoilt for choice, with Peugeot and Renault launching folding hard-top versions of their 307 and Megane ranges respectively to join established favourites such as the Peugeot 206 CC, Mazda MX-5, Toyota MR2 and MGTF.

But these are all bread and butter cars in comparison with the daddy of all convertibles – the Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG. Boasting a price tag of £92,345 on-the-road and a 5.5-litre supercharged V8 offering 500bhp, this is the ultimate open-topped Mercedes-Benz.

But a user-chooser will need a hefty allowance to run this beast from Stuttgart. For a start it will cost you more than £1,700 a month in leasing costs, the benefit-in-kind tax bill will be enormous and CAP estimates it will retain 40% of its cost new after three years/ 60,000 miles (losing £55,000 in the process), but for those with deep pockets the expense is definitely worth it.

Based on the fantastic SL500, arguably one of the most cohesive and beautiful cars ever designed, Mercedes-Benz's AMG division has taken this car as a starting point, and then given it an extreme makeover.

Out goes the 5.0-litre V8 engine and in its place is shoehorned a 5.5-litre V8 with a supercharger, helping to liberate 500bhp and an awesome 516lb-ft of torque. Allied to a five-speed automatic gearbox, the SL55 accelerates from 0-60mph in a blistering 4.7 seconds and pretty soon after that it reaches its engine limiter at 155mph.

Derestricted, this car could easily top 190mph.

While these figures are staggering, so is the manner in which the performance is accessed. Simply slot the gearlever into Drive, plant your right foot deep into the luxurious carpet and hold on tight. There's wheelspin a-plenty as the ever-apparent traction control does its best to overcome physics, but once things have settled down the force propelling you forward is immense.

I thought Mercedes-Benz's twin-turbo 6.0-litre V12 CL600 was a quick car, but it is blown into the weeds by the SL55. And the nature of the performance is different too.

While the CL600 is all about refinement, the SL55 is a raucous animal that spits and snarls and lets you know who's really in control. It's not the driver. From the moment you fire up the engine you know this car is a very different animal. Where most of Mercedes-Benz's cars settle into a refined idle, the SL55 throbs away with a mean intent. Blipping the throttle provokes a NASCAR-like V8 growl that means business.

And this car certainly does mean business. I've already told you that the phenomenal performance is easily accessed but the SL55 also handles very well for such a heavy car.

It's no flyweight at about two tonnes, but those massive tyres provide a staggering amount of grip – even if the power feeding through the rears does overcome them eventually. At this point an array of computers takes over to keep you on the straight and narrow, but be warned: even they run out of options if you go too mad.

And all the while you're enjoying this rocketship performance you are sitting in an elegant cabin that uses quality materials and is put together in the way Mercedes-Benzes used to be. The materials are first rate and you just know this car will go on for many years. Which is all very well, but you won't want to keep your SL55 that long as there's an even quicker SL65 AMG coming soon offering even more power.

Too much, it seems, is never enough.

Fantasy Fleet verdict

MASSIVE performance and massive posing potential – what more could your sales and marketing director want from a car?

Model: Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG
Engine (cc): 5,439 supercharged
Power (bhp/rpm): 500/6,100
Torque (lb-ft/rpm): 516/3,575
Max speed (mph): 155 (limited)
0-62mph (sec): 4.7
Comb fuel consumption (mpg): 19.9
CO2 emissions (g/km): 340
Transmission: 5-sp auto
Fuel tank capacity (l): 80
Service interval (miles): 9,000/ 12 months
On sale: Now
Contract hire rate: £1,736
Price (OTR): £92,345

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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