Stelvio

Alfa Romeo's renaissance steps up a few notches to elevate the superb Giorgio platform to SUV buyers of taste and means, from $65,900

TONY OíKANE

ALFA ROMEO

Your shiny Showroom navigation guide

Fuel RON included in data columns; Ďissue testedí dates include First Drives; long-termers park in Our Garage; Incoming and Marketplace live up front in Redline

Missing link

The top-grade Swift GLX Turbo lacks two things: a third pedal in the driverís footwell, and a manual gearstick. Its six-speed auto works well, but a manual would be the perfect interface to properly enjoy that excellent turbo triple. Also, with $5000 separating the $22,990 GLX Turbo automatic and the $17,990 atmo GL Nav auto, a manual GLX Turbo would allow punters to step up to the well-equipped top grade for less cost.

RENAULT MEGANE GT WAGON

Date acquired: September 2017

Price as tested: $41,580

This month: 878km @ 7.7L/100km

Overall: 7704km @ 7.7L/100km

Full fat

If thereís one thing that impresses straight away, itís the sheer amount of kit that you get in the GLX Turbo grade. Against its chief rival, the $23,680 auto-equipped Mazda 2 GT hatch, the Swift GLX Turbo packs radar-assisted cruise control, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring, and lane-departure warning Ė and thatís on top of AEB, sat-nav, climate control, LED headlamps, foglamps, power-folding wing mirrors and rain-sensing wipers. Generous.

Swift curtain raiser before the main attraction

Suzukiís turbo triple arrives to whet the appetite while the Sport main course is prepared

HAVE you ever hopped into a car for the first time and immediately thought, ďthis feels rightĒ? First impressions count, but relatively few cars in my experience have nailed that initial metaphorical handshake. However, the ones that do get off on the right foot all have one thing in common Ė they tend to do pretty damn well when time comes to put them through the Wheels COTY wringer.

Last year, Volvoís outstanding XC60 Ė winner of COTY 2018 Ė was one of the cars that instantly gelled, as did the runnerup Alfa Romeo Giulia. Surprise, surprise, previous COTY alumni like the ND MX-5, BMW i3, Toyota 86 and Peugeot 308 also impressed me right from the get-go, whether at their respective media launches or when picking them up for my first seven-day loan.

And so it was with the fifth-generation Suzuki Swift. When I first hopped in one, right after its mid-2017 launch, the good vibes were instant. The relationship between seat, pedals, shifter and wheel were spot-on, the seat itself seemed tailored to my dimensions and everything looked and felt like it had been designed, engineered and assembled with care Ė even if the plastics were rock-hard.

Little surprise that it then went on to become a finalist at COTY 2018, let down mainly by a range structure that penalised those who wanted a manual by cruelly making AEB, a reversing camera and a touchscreen infotainment suite available only on specced-up automatic models. Word on the street is that this particular shortfall might be rectified later this year.

So itís good to be getting some more seat time in the Swift, though my stint in this Pure White GLX Turbo is going to be brief Ė itíll be in the Wheels garage for just two months before itís replaced by a manual Swift Sport. However itís not just a primer for the hotter, sexier, and more exciting Sport, but also an opportunity to get reacquainted with the regular Swift and see if more time behind the wheel shows up any additional faults or niggles that might raise their head in day-today driving.

Fresh off the boat with just 23km showing on the odo when I collected it from Suzukiís head office, AQH537 has so far served well. Its lovely 1.0-litre Boosterjet turbo triple makes 82kW and 160Nm which is more than enough to pull its featherweight 945kg mass along, though the six-speed autoís preference for high gears can see the rpm hovering at a number that feels too low for a light car, resulting in noticeable low-frequency exhaust noise and vibration. Itís not actually an issue Ė this engine delivers its full torque output from just 1500rpm right up to 4000rpm Ė but it can feel like itís labouring. After a lifetime of exposure to plenty of wheezy light hatches that need stacks of revs to get anywhere, the Swift GLX Turboís low-end grunt requires a slight recalibration of expectations.

There is, however a weird step on the way up through first gear during hard acceleration that feels like the transmission momentarily slips. It doesnít seem like a fault and Iíve witnessed the exact same thing in a different car, but considering the Boosterjet mechanicals are otherwise so very impressive, something like that stands out.

Deputy Editor Enright also complained about a sketchy connection between his phone and the Swiftís built-in Android Auto smartphone mirroring, but Iíve yet to discover those same gremlins. Reality is, with the integrated sat-nav screen already being quite user-friendly I havenít felt a great need to plug my phone in so far. Out of the box, then, there arenít many things that require improvement, though letís see what happens once weíre out of the honeymoon period.

TONY OíKANE

SUZUKI SWIFT GLX TURBO

Date acquired: February 2018

Price as tested: $22,990

This month: 886km @ 6.6L/100km

Overall: 886km @ 6.6L/100km

Compressed fracture

Given the negative publicity diesel has been copping of late, itís perhaps not such a bad thing that Holdenís new mid-size SUV comes initially with a choice of two petrol engines only. There is a 1.6-litre diesel in the pipeline but unless itís a ripper, weíd happily recommend you stick with either of the petrol options. The LS-spec 1.5-litre turbo-petrol makes a handy 127kW/275Nm, while the 188kW/353Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol available in LT, LTZ and LTZ-V spec is properly punchy.

Tech Mex

Holden engineers have proven themselves past masters at developing high-quality chassis set-ups for Aussie conditions, and the Equinox is no different. The Mexican-built car spent plenty of time here during its development, cutting laps of

Lang Lang and elsewhere to fine tune the dampers, electric steering assistance and ESC for local roads. Other Aussiespecific changes include unique front and rear anti-roll bars, and a swag of different bushes.

Taken before its time

Bulmer meets the repo man with a heart of gold

THE REPO man looked nothing like I expected. In my mind these quaint folk who come to take back your car and other possessions when you default on a loan tend to be burly blokes, wearing chunky jewellery and over-sized leather jackets who speak in Cockney rhyming slang.

But this repo man was a well-dressed youngster from the Holden head office who politely asked if he could swap Ďmyí mid-spec LT Equinox for another Ö with more fruit.

Ordinarily that would be a no brainer. After all, who wouldnít want to swap their midspec anything for an upmarket something, especially when in this case the upgrade meant panoramic sunroof, heated steering wheel, electric front passengerís seat and front seat coolers, among other temptations?

The only issue was Iíd promised Ponchard and Inwood Iíd endure the travails of life in the lower-spec wagon for at least a month before upgrading. We agreed it made sense to sample the breadth of Holdenís new SUV range, to better understand how the other half live Ö without perfumed leather and electric tailgates.

So, I had been dressing down for the week and duly getting back to my motoring roots, manually adjusting my clammy, non- tailgate among other chores. Felt like quite the pioneer, in fact.

But here was this well-dressed young whipper snapper from Holden HQ politely demanding the keys to the LT and dangling the tempting carrot of the full-fruit LTZ-V all-wheel drive. I mean, who was I to argue?

And that, dear reader, is why youíre reading a review of an Equinox LT, on pages graced by images of an LTZ-V.

As I explained to the Repo Man, Iíd had the LT for such a short period that we hadnít even got the beret wearers in the photographic department to put down their piccolo soy-lattes long enough to photograph it. Yet my pleas fell on deaf ears and I watched the LT disappear down the driveway from the comfort of the LTZ-Vís cabin. Rather nice in here, actually.

But I digress. Wheels is a mag for all and I can be a man of the people. Fortunately, Iíd taken some notes if not photos of the Equinox LT before we were so rudely parted.

First up, it stinks. Thatís right, the midspec Equinox LT smells like the shop-floor of a Guangzhou plastics factory. To be fair, the overpowering petrochemical aroma did diminish over the short time we had it, but it was still unnecessarily prominent. Interestingly, there are no such issues with the leather-trimmed LTZ-V.

Second, itís noticeably firmer in the ride than the Honda CR-V I ran before it, but does offer decently responsive steering and handling, and I drove it only one-up, so a load may take some of the edge off the otherwise impressive locally tuned suspension.

Third, its 188kW/353Nm turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine is exceptionally punchy and, teamed with an excellent ninespeed automatic, makes for an impressive drivetrain package, exceptÖ

Except, for the fact itís channelling all that grunt to the 18-inch front hoops, which struggle at times for traction and offer regular wrist-borne reminders of where the torque is going. As Ponch said at Wheels COTY, you really need to opt for the AWD models if you choose the punchier of the Equinoxís two engines.

Fourth, at $36,990 plus $500 for premium paint, it makes a compelling value proposition; especially when you consider that it packs an impressive suite of safety features including AEB and forward-collision alert with head-up warning, lane-departure warning, six airbags and a raft of other safety items.

Fifth, you want a fifth? Sheesh, I only had the thing for five minutes. Tell you what, come back next month and Iíll tell you about my new wheels: the bright, shiny Equinox LTZ-V pictured here with electric everything and AWD that also happens to smell nice, okay?

GED BULMER

The Style Council

I always thought it was hard to fudge the styling of a small wagon, but all of the Megane GT wagonís rivals ó Golf, Astra and 308 included ó lack the visual cohesion of their hatch siblings. The opposite applies here. That 42mm wheelbase stretch over the somewhat hunched-over five-door balances the proportions and really lets the design breathe. I never grew tired of staring at it ó especially with the LED lights turned on. Front or rear, the Renault has real presence.

RENAULT MEGANE GT WAGON

Date acquired: September 2017

Price as tested: $41,580

This month: 878km @ 7.7L/100km

Overall: 7704km @ 7.7L/100km

Sport rethink

The only truly infuriating thing about our GT was the Sport driving mode, which at lower speeds had the dual-clutch transmission holding each gearís revs as high as possible before upshifting; great for instantaneous point-to-point squirting, terrible for calming frayed nerves in heavy traffic. At least the (excellent) paddles allowed a manual override. Consequently, Comfort became the default setting, at least until the roads opened up, where Sport really came into its own.

FAREWELL

Megane, but not forgotten

A memorable six-month affair with Renaultís excellent wagon comes to an end

AT THE beginning of my half-year with the (breathe in) Megane GT TCe205 EDC 4Control Break, I pondered whether it might be all the car I would ever need.

Wagon practicality meets Renaultsport verve, in an attractive and spacious yet compact package. That it was French and featured four-wheel steering had me hoping for some sort of R16/Honda Prelude mash-up. What I ended up with instead was something rather more substantial.

AOC-309 certainly stood out from the sea of medium-SUV alternatives, with its elegant, low-slung styling, big alloys filling up the wheelarches and smart LED lighting.

Which makes the Meganeís slabby dash seem profoundly mundane in view of such visual boldness elsewhere. Lacking flair, it is the antithesis of the stunning fascia Peugeot is currently serving up. Itís as if Nissan rather than Renault took charge in there.

However, that may explain why nothing squeaked, rattled or broke off, so at least the Spanish factory is putting them together properly. And the trim and materials deployed are generally high quality. Thereís decent space for four adults Ė five if going cosy is okay Ė and all their luggage. The air-con copes well with heat and humidity, the Bluetooth multimedia streaming barely skips a beat and the actual job of conveying info to the driver is impressively imparted via detailed instrumentation.

Furthermore, the Renaultsport bits really do lift the GTís ambience. Though not everybody will enjoy clambering over the high side bolsters, the sports seats are pitch-perfect for their supporting role; the chunky three-spoke wheel is terrifically tactile; while initially fiddly to navigate, the ugly touchscreenís wide range of personalisation provides plentiful colour and distraction Ė I particularly liked the varying dial designs; and the keyless unlocking and walk-away locking is an incredible boon. Much to like and little to loathe.

On the other hand, annoyances included a cruise control on/off switch thatís too-easily knocked by elbows due to its silly lower-console positioning. And once in operation downward inclines allow the speed to run away. Oh, and the sunroof blind lets too much sunlight in.

Wagons have been Renaultís Domaine (pardon the pun) for over 60 years, and the Meganeís packaging really reflects such experience. The tailgate opens high, the aperture is wide, the floor flat and long, and there are handy details like remote-release rear-seat backrests. For these benefits alone families ought to be cross-shopping SUVs with wagons. And thatís before pushing the GTís start button.

A tad unremarkable on paper, the Clio RSbased 151kW/280Nm 1.6-litre four-pot turbo and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission combo transcends the 1430kg wagonís mass, and the forced-induction lag and hesitation associated with such gearboxes. Instead, it responds eagerly to throttle inputs and then with rousing exuberance as the revs rise. This is a deliciously free-breathing belter of a powertrain regardless of driving mode, made all the more special by consistently low fuel consumption (averaging 7.7L/100km all-up).

It certainly lived up to the GT badge. Much of our driving was either inner-urban jungle or rural backroad blasting, where the 4WS chassis displayed its broad bandwidth of abilities best: unexpectedly sharp steering at lower speeds imparted a unique acrobatic lightness to this 4626mm wagon, before transitioning seamlessly to a vice-like grip at higher speeds, backed up by brilliant braking performance.

Plus, though firm, an underlying suppleness defined the RS spring and damper set-up. Bumps are duly dispensed with, making for pleasingly relaxed travel, despite the car riding on (Continental ContiSportContact) 225/40R18 rubber. Our Meganeís dynamics are a real highlight, while the only slight NVH demerit is occasional coarse-surface tyre drone

So, if you seek strong performance, revel in tenacious handling, appreciate a comfy ride and want to stand out from the pack, donít buy an up-spec medium SUV until you test drive the GT. And I mean really flog it, hard. Such an excellent all-rounder for around $40,000. Iím already really missing it.

BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

VOLVO XC60 T8

Date acquired: January 2018

Price as tested: $105,340

This month: 1587km @ 6.0L/100km

Overall: 4660km @ 7.4L/100km

No socket? No worries

Even if you arenít able to plug your T8 in, itís still possible to instruct the car to charge the battery from the petrol engine as you drive, which is useful, though isnít as efficient as charging from home. You can also tell it to retain the remaining charge in the battery, if you want to deploy your electrons later, say in the city or on a twisting mountain road, rather than deplete them gradually as the car mixes it with the petrol power.

Clean air act

A hybrid that actually works as an EV is a gas gas gas

ITíS CHANGING me, this Volvo. Having spent last month eroding any lingering cynicism I had towards SUVs as a category (for being too heavy, too thirsty, too cumbersome and thus deserving of unquestioned enthusiast vilification), the sleek Swede has since had a similar effect on my opinion of hybrids. Iíll admit to being something of an unwilling hybrid sceptic, not because I donít see the value in the technology, but because all the ones Iíve experienced have been disappointing. Heavier and more expensive than conventional drivetrains, they often have odd-feeling control weights (fizzing brake pedals, for example) and struggle, without exception, to reach their predicted Ďelectric onlyí ranges in the real world.

These arenít shortfalls the Volvo sidesteps entirely, in fact itís still guilty of all of them, yet itís easily the most impressive hybrid powertrain Iíve driven. The electric motor delivers a surprising performance boost, with instant step-off and, when the road gets twisty, rapid response as you feed in the throttle on corner exit. The Volvo really hustles for a porky SUV, too: combined outputs of 300kW/640Nm propel the 2105kg T8 from 0-100km/h in just over 5.0 seconds.

However, itís the benefits provided by the batteries in mundane city driving that are more useful. Iíve been charging the T8 at work (a full charge takes just over four hours via a conventional socket) and itís able to get me home and halfway back to the office without using a drop of petrol. Thatís just over 30km on electricity alone, which is impressively close to the on-board computerís claimed EV range of 35km. And I havenít even been trying to be economical; the air-con is always on and my driving style normal. Itís quite satisfying actually, to glide along in near-silence, cocooned in the sumptuous cabin, smug in the knowledge that youíre not burning PULP.

Plugging the T8 in has seen this monthís commuting fuel number drop from 8.0L/100km to 4.8, which is impressive considering Iím not charging it at home, or on the weekends.

Of course, prod the throttle too heavily, or run out of charge, and the combustion engine ignites, which can sound a little gruff initially, though the transition from full EV to hybrid propulsion is fairly smooth. The integration of the eight-speed automatic gearbox is unobtrusive too, with swift and silky shifts only adding to the drivetrainís sense of refinement and completeness.

So there you have it, a hybrid that delivers on its on-paper potential, both as a driverís SUV and a premium, frugal family hauler.

ALEX INWOOD