After a quick highway run from Dubai to Al Ain, we’ve made our way to Jebel Hafeet with the Management Fleet VW Scirocco R, a Range Rover Evoque and a 210bhp BMW 118i. Now it’s time to find out how each of them fares up the hill.
Dropping photographer Moe at the side of the road, we first set out with me in the Evoque and my colleague James leading the way in the ‘Rocco, and blast towards the heavens. I wrap my fingers around the wheel and rest them on the disappointingly plasticky paddles to flick between gears as we power from apex to apex, always at a considerable incline.
With his electronic differential and sports suspension, James opens up gaps in the tighter corners as the Evoque’s weight cause its tyres to scream in protest. But the four-wheel drive, as long as I keep my lines clean, lets me haul the Rangie out of the bends as James tries to strike a balance between mashing the throttle and setting the VW traction control light into overdrive. And on the faster bends, where I can keep braking to a minimum and keep the momentum flowing, he’s having considerable difficulty in losing me.
What’s remarkable about the way the Evoque drives is its composure, not just at a decent lick but also right on the limit. Sure, most of the day is accompanied by squealing tyres, but the Evoque always feels composed as it reaches the edge of grip, and any movement is predictable and easy to control. There’s even an air of Jaguar to the way it drives: that lightly weighted but oddly intuitive steering, mixed with a remarkable balance to the car means it’s easy to pitch into a corner and adjust on the throttle before powering out.
After a run each way, we swap and I get my first chance to try the ultimate incarnation of the Scirocco. The cockpit is familiar, virtually identical to its more common sibling, which means I’m instantly at home in the low sports seat, and having pulled the steering wheel as close to my chest as I can, I hit the gas. The initial rush of acceleration isn’t as crazy as I expected, but as the revs rise the pull increases, the turbo comes on song almost seamlessly and it’s immediately clear that the ‘Rocco R is very fast indeed. It only takes two corners for me to realise that Volkswagen has improved still further on what was already a very pointy and direct car.
The steering has a meaty, much heavier feel than in the Evoque and the grip is simply incredible. The XDS electronic diff means there’s not a peep from the tyres through even the tightest corners, which can be taken at a speed that would rival plenty of dedicated sports cars. Like James, I initially light up the traction control indicator when trying to blast out of apexes, but once again the throttle is so intuitive that I’m soon using all the road to maximise my escape. I succeed in opening up a gap to James, but once again the Evoque looms in my mirrors surprisingly quickly at the top of the mountain. Impressive, against a hatchback that’s the most sorted I’ve driven since the Renault Megane R26.
Next up, it’s a chance to sample the BMW up against the Evoque. I’m intrigued by the concept of this. Abu Dhabi Motors has only tweaked this car the previous weekend, and reckons it could quite easily get the little Beemer to around the 250bhp mark. This is playing safe. My concern, having had relatively little experience of ‘chipped’ cars, is that the quality inherent in factory BMW products will be affected by aftermarket modification.
I needn’t have worried. I turn the car’s Drive Performance Control to Sport+ using a button next to the gearstick and ease the rear-wheel-drive 118i out of its parking space. A bootful of right foot sends the 118 into a slide that’s stupidly easy to control. I’m already in the mood for some drifty fun up the twists of Jebel Hafeet, but it soon becomes clear that there’s not quite enough grunt for that unless starting from full steering lock. Nevertheless, I’m blown away by how darty and tight the 1 Series feels.
There are no mechanical changes from standard on this car, and the suppleness of the suspension and directness of the steering is remarkable. It’s not as focused and pin-sharp as the Scirocco R, but for a run-of-the-mill five-door hatch it’s very impressive. I’m already licking my lips in anticipation of what a few more bhp and a rorty exhaust would do to the car. The kind of service offered by Abu Dhabi Motors has proved popular with customers. Sure, you could just get a 135i, but the bespoke modifications offered give the potential for something much more tailored, even if at $50,000, it can get pricey.
More thrashing up and down the mountain reveals some hard truths. Firstly, the Scirocco R is awesome. It’s phenomenally quick and capable of putting some very respectable machinery under stress. We’ve had the car for a few months, and I’m seriously tempted to bring it back, along with some proper sports cars, to see how it fares.
Secondly, there’s plenty of potential in a relatively lowly 1 Series. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to revisit this work-in-progress and find just how far it can be pushed without putting a strain on standard components. It’s a credit to BMW that so much entertainment can be had without spending big money. Most importantly, we’ve learned that the Evoque drives superbly well for an SUV. Yes, it was shown a clean pair of heels by the ‘Rocco but that’s really not surprising – the VW is lighter, more focused and more powerful.
But the Evoque made an excellent showing. You can really enjoy a drive in it, and push it to its limit without worrying about unpredictable body movements or rolling over. Against the 1 Series, it more than held its own, with the added bonus of being considerably more practical and better looking. The Range Rover then can successfully tread on the turf of hot hatches and leave without a battering. Take the smaller cars away from their natural habitat and I doubt we could say the same thing.