Retro feature: E46 M3, Clio V6 and Evo VII on the Isle of Skye
Skye High: four days, three cars, intoxicating Scottish roads and stunning scenery
This feature was originally published in issue 100 of TopGear magazine
We’re driving south to Scotland. Which, if we were in Norway, would be a completely sensible thing to do. But there are no sparkling fjords in Dudley, pearl of the West Midlands. So, as the autumn afternoon fades into evening, we head for Oxfordshire, leaving one of our cars stricken. And this is only our first day of Project Skye.
I suppose it’s my fault. Hours of sitting in traffic jams on the M25 have led me to dream up a driver’s nirvana; somewhere with fast, empty roads and stunning scenery. And somehow my imagination latched onto the Isle of Skye. I’d never been there, of course, but it felt to me as if this could be the place.
So, inspired by the unseasonally good weather, the idea of rounding up three distinctly different kinds of driver’s cars and going for the last big blast of the year – before the onset of bad weather, followed rapidly by Christmas – had seemed like a good one.
Our disparate band includes a BMW M3 which smells of upholstery cleaner. Perhaps someone had had a trouser-soiling moment in it, spurred on just a bit too much by the car’s incredible talents. These include 343bhp, four exhaust pipes and the rortiest, naughtiest noise to come out of Bavaria.
The naughtiest noise to come out of Dudley is the Ralliart UK-prepared Mitsubishi Evo VII. That’s because the turbocharged engine has a sports exhaust and a sports induction kit fitted. “It sounds like Hannibal Lechter,” says Sock, one of my travelling companions. And it’s just as scary.
Then there’s the mid-engined Renaultsport Clio V6, the reason why two of us, Deputy Editor James and myself, are heading towards TWR, the car’s maker down in Oxfordshire. Our first Clio developed an engine management glitch just before we reached Ralliart, so we’re off to get another, leaving the stricken car to be trailered back and sending the rest of our five-man party on ahead in the BMW.
"As we pass the queue at the bus stop, it’s the Clio that gets all the looks."
It’s now pitch dark and neither the fresh Clio nor the Evo have brilliant lights; they’re not that quiet on the motorway, either. The Evo buzzes, sucks and growls while the Clio – its engine just behind the driver, beneath two thin layers of protection – vibrates, wuffles and has a strange pressurising effect on its driver’s ears. But motorways aren’t what these cars are built for. That’s why we’re off to Skye.
Both cars have irritatingly small tanks, but after the final fuel stop in Glasgow, we know there are only a few more miles to tonight’s destination, Drymen (pronounced ‘Drimun’). In the darkness, the twisty, alien roads and the cars – now more in their element – keep two knackered blokes well awake. Especially me – I’m in the rear-driven Clio, which can be a little tricky on the occasional patches of wet surface we’re encountering here and there. And to tell you the truth, I’m having a hard time keeping up with James, who is not only a serious driver, but he’s in a serious car.
The Clio’s ride is surprisingly soft; a tauter, more overtly sporty setting would suit it better. And an improved steering rack with more lock would help too. Not only is it a pain to manoeuvre in tight situations, but if the tail steps out during spirited cornering, there may not be enough lock to correct the car. Which could spell trouble with a capital F. Its brakes may be strong, with huge front discs, but the chassis starts to feel a touch unstable when you hit the anchors hard.
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The hotel clock has struck midnight by the time we sink into the lounge with a relaxing beverage and meet up with the rest of our Skye-bound posse, who are a bit giggly from a wee ‘sesh’ in the oldest pub in Scotland.
The next morning is fine and fresh, and all our cars are out on the road together for the first time. As we pass the queue at the bus stop, it’s the Clio that gets all the looks. Wide-eyed schoolboys nudge each other and point, even old ladies look amused. The extended flanks, side air-intakes, deep front spoiler, lowered suspension, twin exhausts and 17-inch alloys crowding its wheelarches see to that.
The Evo provides a bit of competition with its big rear wing, but it’s much more under- stated that its predecessor. The VI had an in-your-face aerodynamic bodykit from nose to tail. This new Evo is smoother and sleeker, even the wing is simpler.
The uninitiated might overlook the M3. The subtle M badges, air vents and aero- dynamic lip on the edge of the bootlid don’t get everyone’s attention. It’s like one of those guys that only reveal that they go to the gym when they take their smart jackets off.
Before we leave Drymen, we stock up on essential provisions for the journey, including the local delicacy, ‘tablet’ – like fudge only sweeter and more brittle. Fantastic.
We head north along the bonny banks of Loch Lomond. As the miles turn the odometers, through Glen Orchy and the raw beauty of Glen Coe, the scenery gets wilder and wilder. The higher peaks are dusted with snow, with the whole landscape pressed up against a slate-blue sky.
And I’m pressed into the bucket seat of the Evo, in a near-perfect driving position. Its interior, though, is losing out big-time to the view through the windscreen. In the cabin,
dark-grey plastic reigns supreme. The shapes are OK, but its Oriental origins are obvious.
The Clio doesn’t fare much better in this respect. The dash and cheap plastics are like the old 172, even down to the neoprene-like covering on the big steering wheel. And it’s another in a long list of odd Renault driving positions, the kind which one regularly re- adjusts, in an attempt to find a better setting.
The BMW’s cabin is in another class entirely. Now we’re flying Club Class. I can personally live without the two-tone leather, but it’s undoubtedly high-class stuff. The seats can adjust in all sorts of ways, including side-squeezing extra lateral support, and all the settings can be stored in the seat’s memory.
So far, today’s drive has been just what we’d been hoping for – long, fast, sweeping curves and open straights. What little traffic there is has been overtaken swiftly, apart from a fast- moving lorry whose sides announce that it’s full of ‘Live Fish’. The other two cars, which are noticeably quicker than the Clio, have already overtaken and are well ahead, but the lorry’s spewing out spray from the wet tarmac and the curves in the road are getting tighter.
Then the road opens out enough to give me an overtaking opportunity. I drop down a gear and floor it. The Clio’s steering is vaguer than I’d like, with some play around the dead-ahead; the nose feels light and then I remember how twitchy it was in the wet last night (it doesn’t have any traction control).
Teeth gritted, hands gripping the wheel, wipers on double speed, I pass the truck through a haze of spray. Not a pleasant experience. Now to catch up with the others. The Clio’s gearchange is set too far forward and, shifting through the six gears, the action feels long and the linkage loose. But shift I must if I want to get to Skye before dark.
Sitting behind me in place of the back seats is 230bhp, when the V6’s variable valve-timing gets into its stride at 6,000rpm. And you can hear every one of them, which is quite a thrill. Equally important is the torque (221lb ft at 3,750rpm). I keep the engine turning between these two figures and soon catch up with the M3 and Evo.
We’re now close to Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest point, and we’re all feeling a bit high too. It’s the combination of three fun cars and the sugar rush from all that tablet. With tanks replenished at Fort William, we turn towards Mallaig, stopping for a quick look at the Glenfinnan Monument and a car swap.
I’m in the Evo now, leading the pack and grateful for the car’s sure-footedness as the road gets narrower and a darn sight twistier, with almost every change of direction on a blind crest. We go through the Back of Keppoch, but it feels like the back of beyond.
The Evo has crisp, direct steering, which is fantastically responsive. There’s also an incredible nimbleness to the chassis, which oozes feedback, poise and balance. The body is rigid and the ride rock solid, but for roads like these, it’s virtually unbeatable.
Time after time, I throw the car into a bend, the tail just sliding out under acceleration, followed by a little corrective steering, a bootful of gas and the feeling that maybe even I could become a rally star. It’s that foolproof.
There are two interesting buttons in the Evo. One says ‘ACD’ (active centre differential) and has three settings: Tarmac, Gravel, Snow. On Tarmac, power is fed more to the rear wheels; Gravel gives a roughly 50/50 split; Snow feeds more grunt to the fronts. It’s advisable to select Gravel in heavy rain. Snow? Well, we’ll see about that later.
The second button is located near the handbrake and allows the automatic or manual application of a cold-water spray onto the turbo’s intercooler, providing that final fraction of urge from the engine’s 287bhp and 282lb ft of torque. So far, none of us have felt the need to use it.
Less impressive is the Evo’s gearchange. The short shift action is nice enough, but getting from first to second on a high-engine-speed change often results in baulking. The brakes are also really squeally, but there’s no doubting their stopping prowess or pedal feel.
Finally, the road straightens out, the sea on our left as we drop downhill into Mallaig, the port for the Skye ferry. “Donald Duck lives in Mallaig,” says Jim, the solitary Scot of our party. “But you should really call him Doctor Duck. I went to school with his daughter.” We just look at him as though he’s daffy.
Problem. We can’t get on the ferry. Apart from one car’s worth of space, it’s fully booked. But as luck and the ferry staff’s good nature would have it, two cars haven’t turned up by the time the ferry begins loading and we’re all ushered aboard the MV Lochnevis for the trip over the sea to Skye.
At last, the fabled isle is now visible. And it looks magnificent, the dark, distant Cuillin Hills loom over Armadale, where we dock. Night closes in on our run to Portree, which we take as fast as we dare. Could this be the place I’ve daydreamed about?
I get a call on the mobile. A very concerned Ralliart UK chap asks me if I can still see the Evo, as he’s been notified that its RAC Trackstar alert is activated. I verify that I can see its strangely distorted image in the Clio’s widescreen rearview mirror. It was the ferry trip that caused the false alarm. The tracking centre was alerted that the Evo was on the move despite having its ignition turned off, which to a satellite could be construed as being towed away. The tracker company phone me for further reassurance.
“Doing a magazine group test are you?” “Yes,” I reply, “we’ve got the Evo...”
“... a Clio V6 and an M3. You’ve just turned off the Staffin Road into a cul-de-sac.”
“Yes,” I say, flummoxed, “we’ve just pulled up in front of our hotel. How did you know?”
“I can see them on my screen.”
That settles it; if I ever get a desirable car, I’m going to get a tracker thing fitted.
There’s some old technology that works just as well as this satellite stuff, though – the Skye islanders’ grapevine. By the time we go out for dinner that night, everyone knows who we are and what we’re driving. They’re not overly impressed, though; the reason being revealed by the warm but worldly restaurant proprietor: “We get them all up here: Toyota, Jaguar, BMW. They’re always filming an ad or shooting a brochure.”
And then, overnight, winter arrives.
As morning comes, all our plans for a fun-filled blat around Skye are squashed under a thick, white blanket of snow. I drive the Clio as we attempt to get to Dunvegan Castle on the other side of the island, hoping the weather will change. All that weight over the back axle gives the Renault superb traction where the BMW is spinning its wheels. The Evo’s four-wheel drive proves its worth too.
The weather does change. It gets worse. As we encounter the first blizzard of the winter, we reluctantly decide to turn around and head for the bridge that links Kyleakin over to the Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland. We stop in the lee of the Glamaig peak – snow blowing off its summit like so much caster sugar – to admire the view, take some pics, get very cold – and munch some more tablet.
It’s time to get to know the M3. Step out of the Evo and into the BMW and the latter feels heavy and remote. You have to tune into it, adjust your perceptions and expectations, get used to the over-assisted feel of the steering. I take the BMW all along the A87, which kinks spectacularly past Lochs Cluanie and Loyne, through the Glengarry Forest, where trees sparkle with hoar frost and reflect on the partly-frozen surface of Loch Garry. It’s so beautiful it’s hard to keep my eyes on the road.
"James comes around the bend just a little bit quick, hits the ice, goes sideways, corrects, hits some dry tarmac, corrects again."
Exercising the straight-six engine and exploiting the hefty 269lb ft of torque helps the concentration. The Evo is swift and light, but the M3 has so much grunt and aplomb that it’s easy to warm to it. Only the wail of the engine makes its way into the cabin, the volume growing as I gather sufficient bravery to press the accelerator further and further.
A little wind noise joins in at higher speeds. And high speeds are no problem for the M3. Neither is slowing down from them, the brakes feeling strong and able. The six-speed ’box needs warming up before the notchiness goes and even then the action is a little heavy and mechanical, but it feels well engineered. The M3’s ride is the most comfortable and composed of the three. Once you’ve got used to it, it can stand some throwing around too, never failing to display superb manners.
Tired, but euphoric, we spend the night in Orchy, looking through the window at the windblown snow, half hoping that we’ll get snowed in and half hoping that we can get home tomorrow. Our thoughts on the cars are beginning to crystallise: Sim and Sock are favouring the Evo; I’m feeling very good about the M3; James has a renewed respect for the laws of physics, thanks to the Clio.
Our southward journey continues next morning under clear skies and on clear roads. I’m taking it easy in case black ice still lurks in the shade. We get white ice instead; one of the bends has a whole sheet of it. Sim, driving sensibly in the BMW, stays in shape – no doubt with the traction control light flickering. I shimmy a bit in the Clio, but weight and luck keeps me pointing the right way. James comes around the bend just a little bit quick, hits the ice, goes sideways, corrects, hits some dry tarmac, corrects again. His smile is easily visible in my rearview mirror.
Sooner or later we have to split up and take different roads, but some of us overshoot the last services before our ways diverge. So that, in a weird inversion of our expedition’s start, I end up driving north to go to London.
And so my dream of exploring Skye remains tantalisingly unfulfilled. The question is: if I was going to do the trip again, which car would I take? Not the Clio. It’s too cramped and too flawed to keep up with this company. James is the Clio’s only fan, but even he wouldn’t choose it over one of the other two.
What about the crushingly capable BMW? This is more like it. We would all definitely want to do the trip to Skye and back in the M3; it’s a fantastic all-rounder and getting there would certainly be half the fun. But once I had reached Skye, I would love to lift a garage door and find a Mitsubishi Evo VII there. All gassed up and ready to go.
1. BMW M3
3.2-litre straight six
343bhp, 269lb ft
6spd manual, RWD
0-60mph in 4.9sec, 155mph
As tested £43,400
2. Mitsubishi Evolution VII
2.0-litre 4cyl turbo
287bhp, 282lb ft
5spd manual, AWD
0-60mph in 4.9sec, 155mph
As tested £29,995
3. Renaultsport Clio V6
230bhp, 221lb ft
6spd manual, FWD
0-60mph in 6.0sec, 147mph
As tested £25,995
Words: Colin Ryan Images: Jim Forrest