Living with the ‘Rollerskate’

DSCF0017_49ada5c6641e4-lightboxMost people when they buy a sports car tend to use it as the ‘Sunday Best’ car. i.e on Sunday, when the weathers best. This may well have been the case in terms of the roller skate but finding out that little one number 3 was on her way, it scuppered the whole ‘weekend grown ups car’ idea. However, I still wanted the toy, but it had to be my commute car.

So how does it commute? Thankfully I work only 16 miles door to door from where I live. The mix of B roads, fast A roads and the Milton Keynes roundabouts make the daily drive quite fun if there isn’t too much traffic. Also there are quite a few ‘nice’ cars in MK and the potential for some safe, but fun, driving antics between me and say a Porsche or an Audi TT is quite high. The only problem is that Buckinghamshire County Council seem to have forgotten how to look after their roads, and here is where the problems start.

The normal Smart Roadster is low but the Brabus is lower (the main picture gives a good indication of just how low) and it has been given much stiffer suspension. Hence, as you make progress, every hole, bump, white line and pebble is transmitted, not through the steering wheel, which feels quite inert, but through your backside and up your spine. The leather-heated seats, whilst comfortable are not that cushioned.

Since I first got the Brabus, I am now a full inch shorter than I once was thanks to spinal compression! I had to drive back from Central London with a sore back and by the time I got home, I opened the door and literally fell out of the car and crawled to my house.

Having said that, I am very appreciative of the stiff suspension when driving enthusiastically through the ‘Lanes’ and roundabouts; the grip is exceptional in the dry.  My only problem with the handling is the slightly numb steering. You feel the bumps etc but until you get used to the car, it can be a little vague. The problem is exacerbated when it’s wet or snowy.

Snow. Let me put it this way, 900 kg, rear wheel drive, short wheelbase, 235 wide rear tyres (yes really), sequential box, no low end torque and no clutch. Just to complete the image in your mind, imagine the Japanese drifters, sliding one way, then the other. That is this car on snow but radically less graceful and with the ESP light blinking like it’s a strobe light. On snow the gearchange does not know whether 1st, 2nd or 3rd is best because as soon as the turbo hints at some more power, the rear wheels spin and the engine redlines (the Brabus has an auto changeup at redline – 6250 rpm). Cue frantic paddle action to get the right gear for speed, trying to turn the ESP off, breathing on the accelerator to keep up momentum but not in the turbo boost while steering into the drifts and trying to look calm.

Fast and Furious Tokyo Drift it is not!

[more Slow and Spurious, Milton Keynes drift, eh? -Ed]

I have yet to take this car to a wide enough play area where I can just ‘lose it’ to understand where the limit is.

This brings me to another of its niggles. After an MOT at my local independent repairer, I believe that the MOT guys took it out for a spin. Significantly less fuel in the tank was my first clue and the fact that car couldn’t engage the power when the turbo kicked in. The gearbox is sequential – not automatic – therefore, it has a clutch and uses actuators to engage and disengage the clutch. At the driver end, you have flappy paddles or you can drive it ‘GT1′ style with the tunnel-mounted shift. It’s all done by electronic switches telling the ‘brain’ to clutch in, change gear, clutch out. The issue is, it takes as long to do as to say. These actuators become a little eccentric after a while especially when they have had a cold engine thrashing, as in the case of the rogue MOT guys.

Once the actuators have ‘gone’ once and need resetting, the problem re-occurs in different and varying forms and there doesn’t seem to be a permanent cure. The most extreme form is when they ‘go’ mid launch and you find yourself coasting on a roundabout with the engine and gearbox trying to sort themselves out.

The short term resolution is to back off the throttle, select an appropriate gear, and gradually accelerate away keeping the turbo boost at 0. Hoping, of course, that you haven’t been hit by something in the meantime!

However, same conditions, same roundabout, the next day, you might get a full-on sports start, by which time you are going quite quickly round the roundabout and then the laws of physics catch up with you. Then overtake you, along with back end as it decides it would rather be where the front is. The turbo lag is vicious (no power, then POWER!!) and the wheelbase is short so that when the back end goes, it can really take you by surprise. I have learned when it begins to go and do catch it, but I admit, it has become a game as to whether you can catch it before the ESP light flashes.

Those are my only main niggles with it really.

I started to consider possibly changing it next year for something faster and a bit more ‘grown up’, like a new Audi TT or something bigger, but the milder weather, a tyre pressure check (and rectification after the cold spell) and a spirited drive with an Audi TT put a huge grin on my face and refreshed my enthusiasm for it.

A friend owns an Alfa GTV, very high mileage but a beautiful looking car. It has cost her an absolute fortune to keep it on the road and the latest problem is terminal. She is loathed to give it up and replace it though. The benefits of replacing it far outweigh keeping it, but even though it is a complete money pit, it still makes her smile, even when standing still – which it does a lot!

The Brabus has got under my skin in the same way (except with German engineering rather than Italian flair). I look at it parked anywhere, sat on its back haunches, those awesome wheels and its quirky looking front and it makes me look forward to the next spirited drive home.

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Steve Lloyd