Just the one paddle for WRC cars; pull towards you for an upshift and flick away with the back of your hand to drop a cog

Changes to V12 include variable geometry intake system and race-style mechanical tappets. 

‘the short, square stance does mean that the breakaway into oversteer can feel quite snappy’

1300bhp, some deserted Welsh countryside and not a lot of traction… Welcome to evo’s first off-road group test

‘If the defender does begin to over-rotate, you’d better hope that you catch it early’

WHO HASN’T FOUND THEIR right foot twitching when presented with a big gravel car park? As soon as I sense the coefficient of friction between rubber and planet Earth brought down a few notches, I admit that it is generally too much for me to resist. I adore the feeling of floating along on a loose surface, the car constantly light on its tyres and so easily unsettled. For me it is the most fun you can have behind the wheel. And after the launch of a certain car at the beginning of 2015, it seemed the perfect time for the first evo gravel group test.

When the Ariel Nomad was unveiled I think even the chaps from Somerset were surprised by the rampant enthusiasm with which it was received. But the truth is that it opened up the driving landscape in a lot of peoples’ minds. The thrill of driving has never been restricted to a narrow world of tarmac, but the Nomad provided a mainstream (I bet that’s the first time anyone has used that word about Ariel, but everything is relative) gateway to the sort of thrills that might lie off the beaten track. Driving on gravel was back in the public consciousness and cool again.

You may well ask where it’s actually possible to drive off-road. Plenty of countries around the world have extensive gravel roads in one shape or another, but the UK not so much. There are greenlanes, of course, but speed is very much restricted there. Rallying is the expensive option, but if you know a friendly farmer then all you need is a field and some jumpers for apices. Failing that you could club together with a few friends and host your own gravel trackday at somewhere such as Walters Arena in south Wales, which is what we’ve done. Walters is a huge, 3500-acre site with seemingly endless possibilities, but for today we are using a newly acquired section of land, and the evo special stage that we’ve mapped out has plenty of variety to test both cars and driver. 

It begins with a fast sweeping gravel section (not unlike Finland, although without the jumps) where the cars can stretch their legs. Then it dives sharp left into a much tighter, darker, forested segment. Inevitably the ground beneath the trees is muddier and room for error in here is limited, with plenty of cambers and surface changes. There is a final slippery mudbath under the trees and then it’s back into the open on slightly rougher gravel for a flat-out charge uphill to a big braking zone and a wide left-hander back into the woodland. A few big bumps signal the start of the final descent, which then settles into a wide forest-fire road through some great corners back to our makeshift service park. Each lap takes about three wide-eyed minutes and we’ve brought together five very different cars that represent a snapshot of the gravel spectrum. Let the fun commence…

THERE’S A BIT MORE JEOPARDY in our stage than there is in your average field, so the Polaris RZR is the perfect place to start because it is the simplest to drive. You may not be very familiar with American company Polaris, but the chances are that you’ve seen the odd farmer going about his daily chores in a rather more prosaic version of the RZR, even if you haven’t realised it at the time. Open the small plastic door and you climb up into the rudimentary cabin to find just two pedals. The steering wheel sits at a slightly odd angle but, as is so often the way, you forget about this fairly quickly once you’re up and running. Rather thoughtfully, there is also an adjustable grab handle on the other side of the cabin for anyone brave enough to be a passenger…

There are a couple of versions of the RZR, but this is the XP 1000 EPS with a proprietary 999cc four-stroke DOHC twin-cylinder engine putting out 110bhp through all four wheels (although you can switch to rear-wheel drive if you want) and weighing 621kg dry. The buttons are reassuringly chunky and there is an indestructible quality about the RZR, compounded by a handy sticker detailing what to do if you roll it. Apparently this one has been over a couple of times in its life, so no drama if I invert it. I check the chinstrap on my Stilo is done up nice and secure. 

The RZR (pronounced ‘razor’) sounds, unsurprisingly, like a big trail bike at idle, but as soon as I floor the throttle heading into the stage it takes on the persona of a monstrous chainsaw (which is at least consistent with the location – you can almost see the trees wincing on approach). What’s slightly disconcerting is that it has a CVT-type transmission, so under full throttle the sound stays constant with no gearchanges varying the tone. 

With the seat relatively high and the bodywork equivalent of a red-carpet dress slit to the hip to reveal a lot of leg (or monster springs in this case), I had instinctively formed a few expectations about the RZR and what it would be like to drive. I had thought the long travel – 40.6cm at the front, 45.7cm at the rear – would make it very capable over big bumps but quite vague in the steering department, with plenty of roll to cope with in the corners. It’s quite a surprise then to get to the first corner and find that the RZR is very well supported as it leans on its suspension. It’s not exactly flat and you still have the ability to take some ridiculously big cuts across the inside of a few corners, but the speed of response and the overall composure certainly belie its looks.

Another surprise is that the greatest instability comes on the way into the corners, as you lift off the throttle or brake, rather than on the exit under power. This is of course exactly how you want it to be on gravel, with the car taking some attitude and getting itself turned in nice and early, well before any sort of apex, so that you are then lined up and in a position to maximise traction as you pour on power for the exit. It’s a totally different technique to the one you use on a racing circuit, but even more satisfying when you get it right, in my opinion. 

You really can grab the RZR by the scruff and charge into things, something that I regret slightly after hurtling headlong into the one big boggy puddle and receiving a minor drenching through the non-existent windscreen. The steering is very direct and you can really feel the short wheelbase working for you. This short, square stance does mean that the breakaway into oversteer can feel quite snappy, but when you’re on the power the four-wheel drive is quick to pull the car straight out of any slides and it’s only on the exit of the hairpin where there is a danger of reaching the lockstops.

All in all the RZR is a huge amount of fun, and with the whole thing (complete with number plates) costing £20,999 it feels like a bit of a bargain. It’s certainly rather more attainable than the next car…

Engine In-line 2-cyl, 999cc
Power 110bhp @ 9000rpm
Torque 70lb ft @ 7500rpm
Weight (dry) 621kg
Power-to-weight (dry) 180bhp/ton
0-50mph 5.3sec (claimed)
Top speed 77mph (claimed)
Basic price £20,999

four-wheel-drive, generous ground-clearance and vast suspension travel mean the RZR begs to thrown about

‘greatest instability comes on the way into the corners, as you lift off the throttle or brake, rather than on the exit under power.’

‘Under braking the car hangs you in the belts more strongly than plenty of road cars do on tarmac’

‘oversteer feels wonderful, with the outside rear of the car squatting in an exaggerated fashion’

‘so manageable is oversteer that even if you you apply a bit of handbrake on corner-entry the car is easily caught’

AS THE DOOR SHUTS AND I’M LEFT alone in the Fiesta RS WRC, I still can’t quite believe this is happening. M-Sport has sent down the car Ott Tänak was driving at the start of the season and in which Juho Hänninen finished sixth at Rally Finland only days ago. Cameron, the engineer accompanying the car unloaded it from the trailer when he arrived this morning and talked me through the basics of the switchgear and the temperatures to watch out for, but then he just told me to have fun. There is no one from M-Sport in the passenger seat to tell me not to drive too fast through a forest in their half-a-million quid’s worth of WRC car; they’ve just decided that they trust me…

Two tiny toggle switches on the control panel between the seats need to be lifted and flicked down. Things light up and whirr. Then it’s just a case of pressing probably the only part that this car has in common with a Fiesta ST road car – the starter button. Once it’s idling you need to press the little clutch pedal and then find the small button on the back of the single big carbon paddle that mirrors the curve of the right-hand side of the steering wheel. Press the button and pull the paddle towards you at the same time and the small display perched on the naked steering column switches from ‘N’ to ‘1’. The clutch is not as fierce as I feared, but it still requires a steady foot and a keen balancing of the revs with the sharp throttle to get smoothly under way. It sounds so loud too, but you mustn’t be timid. Be bold, enjoy the noise, you can’t drive a car like this quietly…

I floor the throttle as we pass the stage-start boards, the tyres scrabble, the angry bluebottle sound intensifies tenfold and I find that I’ve instinctively changed up four times before I’ve even drawn breath. Estimated figures of 300bhp and 350lb ft might not sound much, but with only 1200kg to push around and short gearing, it feels like plenty.

The first corner is a fast right, off-camber with a small boulder on the inside and a couple of really big boulders on the outside, but it could be worse. I nudge the paddle away with the back of the fingers on my right hand to change down to fourth, then turn the car in early and it responds instantly. We are now drifting. I get back on the throttle and drive the car out of the slide and with even more confidence do the same through the long left at the bottom of the hill. This is really happening. 

I spend the first laps getting used to the balance and the eerily light steering. It’s perhaps the remotest car I’ll drive all day as it almost glides over the loose surface, its incredible dampers tracking the ground, ensuring that the expensive rubber retains maximum contact with the mud and gravel. Straight away it feels fantastically pointy considering we’re on a loose surface and this ability to get the nose turned into a corner so quickly means it feels really easy to drive.

Then I switch from Road mode (which is already phenomenally fast) to Stage mode, with its aggressive ALS (anti-lag) settings, and the car gets tangibly angrier in an instant. When you get it right, you find that you have the wheel straight for most of a corner, with only minimal corrections. The reason for this is that if you get the entry to the corner right then the car arcs around gracefully behind you on the momentum you’ve harvested on the way in. Your right foot and the four-wheel drive then help maintain this slide, the end result being that the car is accelerating out of the corner pointing straight and deploying maximum traction as early as possible. As you would expect, the Fiesta is a good chunk quicker than the other four cars in this test, but its freakish adjustability also makes it huge fun. 

After a few laps I realise that the only way I’m going to go any quicker is to take unnecessary risks, so I settle into a blissful rhythm. The area for biggest improvement, but also inevitably the one with the biggest associated risks, would be braking. Using your left foot to brake feels completely natural and it’s easy balancing the car this way, but only occasionally do I leave the stopping as late as I should. When I do hit the pedal with all the force I can at the end of the two big straights, the way the car digs into the surface and hangs you in the belts feels stronger than plenty of road cars do on tarmac. It’s mind-scrambling yet also so wonderfully accessible that after a while I start to feel really at home.

For the final few runs through the stage I give a few passenger rides, as it seems a shame not to share the experience. Everyone steps out awestruck by the car. What a privilege. 

Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1600cc, turbo
Power 300bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque 350lb ft @ 3000rpm
Weight 1200kg
Power-to-weight 254bhp/ton
0-60mph 3.9sec (estimated)
Top speed 125mph (estimated)
Basic price c£400,000

AS CONTRASTS GO THEY DON’T GET much bigger than jumping straight into Tuthill Porsche’s classic Safari-spec 3.0 911 RSR. I want to say that it seems very bare after the Fiesta, but that’s not exactly right. Less cluttered perhaps; simpler. Certainly smaller, with the windscreen right in front of my nose by comparison with the Ford. Like all the cars here, you feel instantly at home because of the racing armchair, which embraces you in a wonderfully secure and reassuring hold.

In front of me are three familiar dials in three familiar round holes, but the two on the outside have been replaced with air vents. Along the rest of the dash is a neat row of toggle switches, a rainbow bank of fuses and then the co-driver’s paraphernalia. The three pedals are offset slightly towards the centre of the car, each with a bit of glasspaper on top to stop soles slipping. The wheel is a medium-sized Momo with a yellow band at 12 o’clock – something that will probably be useful, as unlike in the Fiesta I suspect I won’t be keeping my hands locked in the quarter-to-three position.

I go for a ride with Richard Tuthill first to see how it should be done. He’s arguably the best exponent of how to drive a historic rally 911, so it’s an entertaining and very useful few minutes. He explains that there are essentially three phases to every corner in a 911 on gravel: an aggressive first phase setting the car up for the corner where you’re hard (really hard) on the brakes, throwing the weight forward to get the grip for the front tyres so you can turn in and get the pendulum behind swinging. Then there is a passive phase where the car should be balanced. Finally there is another aggressive phase with lots of throttle, using the 911’s traction with the weight over the rear wheels to propel you up the road as soon as you see the exit. Simple…

Flick the toggle halfway down for the ignition, then press it all the way down for the starter motor, releasing it once the flat-six has caught. It’s a wonderful sound from the air-cooled engine and it only gets better as the revs rise on our way to the first corner. The gearshift, with its long lever, needs a little care going from second to third but is otherwise lovely, and my first impression is just how quick the Porsche is. Despite relatively modest figures of 290bhp and 229lb ft, there is this lovely big torquey feel (as opposed to a Torquay feel, which would presumably end up with the car parked on a pavement and the driver giving it a damn good thrashing) to the motor that breezes through the gears effortlessly.

Of course, while the 911 might look several decades behind the Fiesta, what’s hiding in the arches is anything but. The monster travel is controlled by Exe-TC dampers, a name that was seen in the arches of Citroën’s WRC cars not so long ago. Although the relatively lofty setup might not be ideal for some sections of our stage today, when it comes to the big hits (and there are a few) the 911 simply shrugs them off, practically pulling a wheelie out of one small mud-filled ditch every time. It’s wonderfully incongruous what it can cope with and you can instantly understand why they do so well in the unpredictable rough and tumble of East Africa. 

Despite the jacked-up look, there is much more turn-in grip than I expected, but it’s tricky judging the commitment needed to carry you into the passive phase of the corner. Once this 911 is oversteering, however, the wheel running easily through your hands with the yellow band spinning round the circumference as it almost naturally dials in the opposite lock, it feels wonderful, with the outside rear of the car squatting down in an exaggerated fashion. 

For every corner I get right I feel like I get at least two wrong (or if not actually wrong, then they could be a lot better) and there’s a sense that a full day is required to get to grips with the 911, because you really need to dial yourself into the balance of the machine. It’s a bit like juggling, when you initially feel like you’re struggling to keep up with the catch-throw process. Yet as you gradually get accustomed to the weight of the thuds, you relax and time seems to expand. So in the 911 you have to concentrate and slowly tune into the way it dives, squats, rolls and swings its weight about, because for all that driving on gravel is a very fluid sensation that seems to give you a lot of time, you still need to drive very sensitively, just with quite a bit of lock. And slightly confusingly, the less precise the car (and the 911 is inevitably less precise than the Fiesta), the more precise you need to be as a driver. 

With gravity helping, I find the final downhill corners the easiest in which to get the weight moving in the 911 and arguably that’s where the car feels at its best for me, but it’s not the stretch I will really remember. There is one long straight about a kilometre into the stage where a long plume of dust hangs in the warm air, the particles dancing and twisting as they gradually fall back to Earth, ready to be disturbed again on the next lap. From the photos it could almost be the Rift Valley… if you ignore the pine trees. And by the time I step out of the 911 I have made it one of my life’s ambitions to go to Kenya and do the Safari in one. You should too.

‘using the 911’s traction with the weight over the rear wheels to propel you up the road as soon as you see the exit. Simple…’

Engine Flat-six, 2994cc
Power 290bhp @ 5800rpm
Torque 229lb ft @ 5200rpm
Weight 1250kg
Power-to-weight 212bhp/ton
0-60mph 4.9sec (claimed)
Top speed 125mph (claimed)
Basic price £180,000

Designed for Africa, Tuthill’s 911 waltzes our Welsh stage. Soon after our test this very car, with Stig Blomqvist at the wheel, would win the East African Safari Classic

MY BIGGEST FEAR WHEN I KNEW THE cars that we would be assembling for this day was that the Nomad would be shown up. Everything else here wears its number plate in a much more casual fashion and I feared Ariel’s beautifully bonkers creation, the car that had inspired the whole test, would be out of its depth. Given the day I’ve had so far I’m more nervous than ever as I clamber in through the roof, dropping down past the impressive row of lamps. As I settle in I can’t help but notice the nice big bar jutting up in front of the tiny gearlever. I knew there was rumour of Ariel fitting a proper hydraulic handbrake, but I hadn’t realised they had made it reality.

The car feels tiny and, despite the windscreen, it feels even more exposed than the Polaris, but I love seeing the ground rushing past next to me as I head off into the stage. It’s immediately obvious that this is a far more direct car than anything I’ve driven so far, with firmer suspension and a much greater feeling of connection to the front wheels through the steering. If I wasn’t sure before where the bumps were on the stage, I certainly am after one lap in the Nomad. With a fair bit of kickback through the steering on the rough section through the trees, it’s a really physical experience, with the little wheel needing to be held much more firmly to stop it wrestling itself out of my grip.

Because it’s so easily done (all it takes is a couple of turns on the adjusters on the dampers with your fingers), I soften the rear suspension a touch after a few runs because on the smoother sections it’s bobbling a bit too much under acceleration; this should also make the car a bit more predictable in slides. There is already a big grin on my face though, and I’m surprised at how well the Nomad is coping with the bigger hits given its diminutive size. Although the heightened levels of feedback were initially a shock to the system, it is actually very nice having so much information. If a Nomad was your first foray into the world of gravel driving, I can imagine that would be a real reassurance. 

Perhaps the best surprise, however, is the balance of the car. With the engine out the back and even less weight than the 911 over the front wheels, I wondered whether it might be a bit of a struggle on the way into corners, but the Nomad is incredibly friendly. Outputs of 235bhp and 221lb ft in 750kg feel plenty, but the Yokohama Geolander tyres find surprising grip and so manageable is the oversteer that even if you need to apply a bit of handbrake as you enter the corner, you know that it will be easy to catch the rear and hold the slide. 

When I drove the Nomad on the road in evo 210 I felt the 2.4-litre engine still needed driving like the 2-litre in the Atom, but on gravel you really appreciate the extra low-down torque and very quickly get used to throwing gears at it. In fact, one of my favourite things about driving the Nomad on the loose is the juxtaposition of the free, expansive feeling of the car moving around and the supremely tight throw of the gearbox (it feels like the gate must be no bigger than a matchbox). 

Yes, the Nomad reacts to bumps and cambers more than the other cars here, requiring stabs of lock where others sail through, but it also telegraphs the ground more obviously to the driver. Combined with your proximity to your surroundings, thanks to the open sides and relatively low ride height, this makes it a wonderfully involving car to drive. Physical, but involving. If it’s tough on me then it’s certainly tough on the car, but one of us looks considerably less tired after an hour of thrashing around the stage. Probably rattles less too.

Nomad is the car that inspired this test.

An enormous hydraulic handbrake is a welcome addition on a gravel course

Engine In-line 4-cyl, 2534cc
Power 235bhp @ 7200rpm
Torque 221lb ft @ 4300rpm
Weight 750kg
Power-to-weight 318bhp/ton
0-60mph 3.9sec (estimated)
Top speed 120mph (estimated)
Basic price £33,000

IF THE TRANSITION BACK THROUGH the decades from the WRC car to the 911 was quite a jump, then Nomad to Bowler is arguably even bigger. Climb in over the roll-cage and you find yourself with a view that’s even higher than in the Polaris, albeit with a bit more weather protection this time. There is some familiarity to the very upright cabin layout as I did a hill rally in a Defender in evo 207, and jolly good fun it was too. That was a shorter wheelbase ‘90’, whereas this is a 110, and while that had a four-pot turbodiesel, this has something considerably fruitier. Under the bonnet in front of me is a 3-litre supercharged petrol V6.

We’ll get to the numbers in a minute, but all you really need to know is that the first time the Defender and I head off into the stage, everyone stops and stares. I’m even more gobsmacked inside. Not only does it get off the line like no Defender has any earthly right to, it sounds like Group B regulations have returned. The mellifluous yet savagely primal roar that is left in the Bowler’s dusty wake is magnificent and I can’t help but laugh as we charge like a four-wheeled rugby prop towards the first corner. 

The engine is putting out about 390bhp and 339lb ft of torque. There are bespoke Bilstein remote-reservoir dampers keeping 300mm of travel in check and there is a Watt’s linkage at the rear. The gearbox is a ZF eight-speed automatic and on Drew Bowler’s suggestion I pop the lever (recognisable from an F-type) across into manual. Upshifts come in rapid succession, each one accompanied by suitable acoustic fireworks. There’s a slight delay between the request and implementation of each downchange, but you quickly get used to pre-empting the ideal shift point and nudge the lever a moment ahead of time accordingly. 

Tackling something other than a straight line in a Defender is an interesting process. It is certainly the trickiest of our assembled quintet to get smoothly and quickly round a corner, but it is hugely rewarding when you get it right. To begin with you tackle corners in a more conventional and track-like fashion, coping with a bit of understeer as you turn into an apex but then using the tremendous traction (it’s amazing what a beam axle can do) to fire you out the other side. However, as you get bolder you realise that you can provoke the Bowler more than this. For a start, the brakes are surprisingly good, and with all that weight pitched over the front axle, forcing the tyres into the ground, you’ve got tremendous grip to lean on during the slowing phase. This means you can brake later than you think, and once you’re doing that you begin trail-braking into the corner so that the unweighted rear begins to swing. If you get this right then you don’t really need any lock to correct it; you just get on the throttle as the momentum of the slide peters out and launch the snarling V6 up the next straight. 

The tricky thing is that sliding a Defender feels like a bit of a knife-edge. You’re always aware of the high centre of gravity, so it feels constantly up on tiptoes. And if the car does begin to over-rotate so that you need corrective lock, you’d better hope that you catch it early and don’t need too much steering input, otherwise you can find yourself grappling with armfuls of the stuff trying to keep up!

As I said with the 911, the less precise the car, the more precise the driver’s inputs need to be as you balance it through the corners. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but the Defender and its ludicrous soundtrack do provoke some of the biggest grins from everyone in the service area, and that’s on a sunny day when there is generally a lot of grinning anyway. 

Left: bespoke Bilstein remote-reservoir dampers sit inside springs with 300mm of travel. Below: trail-braking neuters understeers and gets the rear axle swinging

Engine V6, 2995cc, supercharger
Power 390bhp @ 6500rpm
Torque 339lb ft @ 4500rpm
Weight 1875kg
Power-to-weight 219bhp/ton
0-60mph c5.0sec (claimed)
 Top speed 130mph (estimated)
Basic price c£100,000

IT’S A MEASURE OF HOW much fun these cars are that today ranks amongst the very best I’ve had in a decade in this job.The driving experiences this brilliant selection of cars offer are all so different and the budgets needed so wide-ranging that it is not easy or perhaps even fair to pick a winner, so I won’t.

The Polaris is a brilliant entry point to this potentially rough and tumble world. The fact that you can use it for anything from having fun mucking about in a field to doing a full hill rally makes it fantastic value for money. Talking of hill rallies, the V6 Defender is one of the silliest, most terrifying and yet also brilliant things all in the space of one corner. Its soundtrack needs to be taken as some sort of blueprint for the next generation of WRC cars that are due to arrive on stages in 2017.

Not that the current crop of WRC cars aren’t insanely impressive, as the M-Sport Fiesta proves. Its speed and agility combine intoxicatingly to make you feel like a superhero behind the wheel and that’s the reason I would want one in my dream garage. 

One other way to live out your superhero dreams is to drive a car with Stig Blomqvist’s name on the side. Much like the very best road 911s, the Safari car was something that I felt would be an ongoing learning experience as I worked out how to get the best from its defining and beguiling weight distribution. An Escort of similar vintage is much easier to jump into and get the best from throughout a stage, but the trickier 911 is arguably more rewarding when you nail a corner from entry to exit. 

Which leaves the Nomad, the newest car but also the one that kicked off the idea for this whole test. The fact that it isn’t overshadowed by the competition machinery here is huge credit to the engineers behind it. In fact it’s arguably the most pleasingly balanced of all the cars, with an engaging rear-driven setup that feels easily exploited. If you bought one of these and only ever drove it on the road you would have a great time, but you would undoubtedly be missing out, because in my mind to feel one of these shimmy through a long corner on a surface of nature’s own ball bearings is to feel something close to motoring perfection.

This might have been evo’s first gravel group test, but I hope it won’t be the last.

‘If the defender does begin to over-rotate, you’d better hope that you catch it early’

CONCLUSION