BMW make a great 1-series – it just isn’t this one

BMW has made the 1-series brilliant on B-roads, but not so great everywhere else

BARBECUE envy is a bad thing to suffer from at this time of year.

Essentially it involves dragging your rusty old bit of al fresco cooking equipment – inevitably bought at a supermarket for about £30 five years ago – in preparation for a lovely evening with your friends and family. It’s only then you find you’ve been upstaged by an irritating mate/relative/colleague with three grand’s worth of Napoleon Prestige in their garden. You can’t help but marvel at all the polished stainless steel, backlit controls and ceramic plating – but it’s all a bit over-engineered for burning burgers on Britain’s ten hot days each year.

It’s not unlike the BMW 1-series I’ve just spent a weekend with, because it manages to be just a tiny bit too brilliant for its own good. Can a car be too, er, good for its own good? If the 116D is anything to go by, the answer’s an emphatic yes.

If you’ve never driven a 1-series then you won’t appreciate that for all its slightly awkward hatchback proportions it is a proper BMW of the old school, focusing on engineering above all else. So it has a delightfully smooth engine (even for a diesel) up front, all the power heading to the back, and perfect weight distribution in the middle. As a result it’s a real joy to drive, with beautifully balanced steering, a low driving position and a slick gearchange. No bad thing if you’re up in North Yorkshire, where I was working over the weekend.

But once you peel off the B-roads and back into the real world it’s not so impressive. The reason why the rest of the world stopped making rear-drive hatchbacks once the Vauxhall Chevette disappeared is because you have to send all the power down a propshaft to the back wheels, which in a low-slung car like the 1-series robs space. As a result the footwell is cramped, there isn’t much rear legroom and the boot isn’t exactly commodious.

The sharp suspension that proves such a joy on country lanes translates into a firm ride once you’re on the motorway, and I now understand why 1-series drivers never indicate. The flickers seem incapable of self-cancelling, so why bother using them?

This is normally the point where I’d recommend buying a cheaper, roomier Golf that’s very nearly as fun, but I can’t because I know deep down that the 1-series is a truly capable bit of kit that just needs more BMWness to work. It deserves to be ordered in full fat M140i form rather than the apologetic fully skimmed offering you get with the 116D.

I can fully approve of a car where going for the turbocharged one with 335bhp represents the sensible option. Let’s face it, you were only going to spend three grand on a barbecue anyway.

Fair play to Ford for making the Mustang safer

The pre-facelift Mustang was criticised for its poor crash rating

SUPPOSE you opened a posh restaurant specialising in the sort of gourmet grub that’d make Jamie Oliver envious.

It doesn’t take long to pick up rave reviews aplenty from the foodie set, but a council inspector smells a rat (quite literally) and slaps a poor hygiene rating on the door for the standard of the kitchen. It’s a serious dent in your reputation – but you’ll do everything in your power to put it right again.

Which is pretty much exactly the place Ford’s found itself in with its latest Mustang. Reviewers loved it – me included – for its V8 soundtrack, tempting prices and pert good looks, and it was wonderful to have the American motoring institution over in Blighty for the first time, officially sold through nearby Ford dealers with the steering wheel on the correct side.

But even though you could escape the reality of commuting through Crosby or Crossens on a wet Wednesday morning by turning up the Beach Boys CD in your American muscle car, there’s no way you could get around its fairly dismal safety rating. Regular readers might recall that earlier this year it was given just two stars by the crash test experts at Euro NCAP, in an age where anything less than five stars on your new family saloon is considered a disappointment.

But it’s fair play to Ford for actually listening and doing something about it. It can’t go to all the expense of completely re-engineering the Mustang’s crumple zones, but it’s responded to the criticism by bringing out a lightly facelifted version with vastly improved airbags and a lane assist system as standard.

Naturally the crash testers responded by immediately shoving it face-first into a concrete block – and hey presto, the two-star Mustang is now a three-star Mustang.

Okay, so a three-star rating still isn’t amazing, with Euro NCAP’s boss calling it “unexceptional” but it does show that one of the car industry’s giants cares about your safety. It also proves just how seriously the powers-that-be take crash test results. Two decades ago the Metro scored so poorly it was promptly taken out of production altogether after sales dried up, but the small cars of today, including the latest SEAT Ibiza, are routinely picking up top marks for their teacher’s pet approach to safety.

So the Mustang’s a lot safer than it was before. Which means we can get back to enjoying why we came to that metaphorical restaurant in the first place – four courses of V8 muscle, with the engine for the Focus RS as the vegetarian option. Where’s a waiter when you need one?

Good news 007 – even Aston Martin is downsizing these days

Even Aston Martin realises that we live in an age of austerity

M PAUSED reflectively for a moment. “The latest figures from the Minister of Defence have arrived. I’m afraid there are going to have be some changes for the 00-section”.

There was a brief silence as the assembled MI6 bigwigs braced themselves for the bad news. They knew all along that austerity had been a fundamental part of Government policy for years, but they’d never expected it to hit Her Majesty’s flagship network of foreign operatives directly.

“I’m terribly sorry, but if we’re going to meet all these spending targets then agents are just going to have to start flying Easyjet and Ryanair, like everyone else,” M sighed with resignation. “And 007’s certainly going to have to stop ordering all those blasted vodka martinis. Doesn’t he realise that he shouldn’t be ordering all those drinks on expenses?”

Q Branch, for all its years of jetpacks and exploding pens, was right in the firing line. There’d be no laser-equipped watches when the shop up the road from MI6 was selling perfectly good Casios at a tenner a pop. Certainly there wouldn’t be any more jet packs, stealth boats or exploding pens.

But M drew a line when he picked up the Aston Martin brochure. The battle against SPECTRE, the depressed-looking faces in the room were surely about to reason, could just as easily be fought with a Dacia Sandero or Skoda’s new Citigo. But MI6’s top man was having none of it.

“Happily, Aston Martin has realised budgets here are a little tighter than they used to be,” he announced. “The DB11 was beginning to look a little unfeasible, but thanks to the changes they’ve made I think we might just be able to afford it.”

M pointed out that for the past year or so the DB11’s only been available with a twin-turbo 5.2-litre V12, accompanied by a rather hefty starting price of £157,900, something which even those pesky world domineering sorts with their hollowed-out volcanoes and white cats are baulking at these days. But now there’s a new version which comes with a smaller engine that’s kinder to the environment – a 4.0-litre V8, no less. It’s still equipped with two turbochargers and pumps out 503bhp but it’s still cheaper than the full fat DB11 – it’s now £144,900.

Okay, so a 13-grand saving isn’t a lot but it does make DB11 ownership that tiny bit more affordable. It’s also lighter than the V12 car and, Aston insists, better through the bends as a result, which counts for a lot when you’re attempting to outrun the bad guys.

Which means that even in Theresa May’s era of austerity Bond can have a decent company car. Good to see 007 doing his bit to help the nation’s finances…

Drive the new Volkswagen Polo? I’d rather take it jogging

There is a reason why the new Polo is roomier than the old one

I’VE LONG suspected that jogging is just a sweatier form of walking. I’ll cheerily wave at people powering past on yet another 10k, but I’m quite content that simply strolling to the nearest pub is exercise aplenty.

But then a colleague – who’s practically taken me on as some sort of flabby protégé –  insisted I give it a go. Worryingly, I’ve found this whole moving quickly without a car lark to be surprisingly good fun.
I feel better for myself after every run, and I’m already beginning to see the results on my waistline. The idea is that I’ll get fitter, build up my speed and stamina – and then I’ll invite the new Volkswagen Polo along too, because boy does it need it.

By the looks of things Germany’s supermini of choice has been spent too long watching The Jeremy Kyle show with a can of Stella in one hand and a freshly cooked Fray Bentos in the other. By Volkswagen’s own admission it’s taller and wider than the outgoing model, and bumper-to-bumper it’s 94mm longer, which is like going up three waist sizes in car terms. What’s more the latest press packs favourably compare its dimensions to how big the Golf was in the Nineties but don’t mention weight once, presumably because the Polo’s scared of stepping on the scales and screaming in horror.

Which is a shame, because while the new Polo looks like the Golf (which is a good thing) and builds on 2009’s European Car of the Year (ditto), it’s getting increasingly hard to relate to it as a small car. The gap between the new boy and the pint-sized Up is bigger than you’d imagine.

But then the Polo isn’t the only one looking a tad porky these days. The other day I had a nose around Nissan’s new Micra and it is vast compared to the lovably cute bubble-shaped ones learner drivers used to have crashes in, and while I love the looks of Renault’s latest Clio I had to conclude the 900cc engine in the one I borrowed felt a bit strained because it’s a far bigger car than its predecessors. Virtually all of today’s superminis are blobbier than they used to be – very few are lighter, smaller or nimbler.

But I can guarantee that while small cars have got bigger the multi-storey at the Concourse in Skelmersdale hasn’t expanded, and nor have any of Southport’s parking spaces. If you really do need to squeeze into those awkwardly tight spaces outside supermarkets, you’d be better off slipping down a size and buying something like Ford’s Ka+.

That or jog down to the shops

How to stay cool in your car

An MG ZR is no place to escape the current heatwave

WHAT’S the hottest you’ve ever been? Chances are it’ll be mid-gulp during a particularly brave visit to an Indian restaurant, or during that holiday to Majorca where you and your mates forgot to dab on the suncream.

For me it’s always going to be an assignment that involved watching Ford GT40s powering around the Catalunya circuit – it’s a rotten job, I know – but last weekend very nearly edged it. If you want to ramp up the hottest day of 2017 to extra degrees of stifling discomfort, just chuck a car into the mix.

The one at my disposal was an MG ZR, which you’ll no doubt remember as being a Rover 25 with a bodykit and really stiff suspension. It’s a lairy, chuckable hot hatch in the old-school sense of the phrase, but being a 14-year-old car made on the cheap by MG Rover it has no aircon whatsoever.

So coming back to it after a car show – with it having spent nine unbroken hours in 30 degree sunshine – meant having to take a rather more cautious approach to driving.

For starters it might have been 30 degrees on the outside but on the inside the temperature was probably closer to what you’d find on the Sahara. Putting your hands around the steering wheel felt more like grasping a freshly cooked Cumberland swirl – only minus the oven gloves. The ZR’s also fitted with part-leather seats, which normally add a touch of class to a teenage hatchback but last weekend felt like having two small ovens burning into your shoulders.

The little MG did at least managed to keep its cool in traffic – which is more than I’d be able to say of my MGB in the same scenario – but driving it even for an hour, with every window wound down, was unbearable. It makes me wonder how everyone racing at Le Mans, managed to sit in even hotter climes last weekend and do a bit of racing while they’re at it.

But if you aren’t lucky enough to have air con fitted there are a couple of things you can do. Drive early in the morning or later at night, when it’s cooler. Leave the windows partly open if it’s safe to do so. Make sure your engine coolant’s topped up, and whatever you don’t leave any children, dogs or other vaguely cute things strapped in while you pop to the shops.

Oh, and don’t leave it for nine hours in the baking heat at a car show.

Bloodhound SSC – inspiring the next generation of Blue Peter doodlers

Bloodhound SSC is aiming to break the world land speed record

WHEN I was about ten I entered a Blue Peter competition that involved sending in drawings of Britain’s biggest and boldest achievements.

Everyone else sent in pictures representing the Millennium Dome and the World Wide Web – which is hindsight is weird, because the former was lambasted a colossal waste of public money and the latter is now used for amusing cat videos.

But my rather badly scrawled doodle depicting Andy Green at the helm of Thrust SSC, correctly predicted that Britain would ace the world land speed record. What I didn’t realise was that the 763mph record would still stand today, two decades later. Which is why my inner schoolchild beamed with excitement this when I heard that Thrust SSC’s successor is finally ready for its first outing.

For starters it has an equally brilliant name – Bloodhound SSC – but the stats sound like they belong in an episode of Thunderbirds. Try 0-60mph in less than a second. Barely a minute later it’ll be doing 1000mph.

On its low speed demonstration runs later this year it’ll comfortably keep pace with a Ferrari F40 at 200mph or so, and run on tyres borrowed from a Lightning jet fighter. But when the big day comes it’ll have no rubber at all, because there’s no tyre in existence that can cope with a wheel spinning 170 times every second.  Some of the numbers that come with Bloodhound SSC’s record attempt boggle the mind.

Why does it matter, particularly since this project’s been nearly a decade in the making and so far hasn’t moved beyond static displays at car shows? Because it shows we Brits can still do all the ballsy and brave stuff when we aren’t making Range Rover Evoques and Vauxhall Astras. In the same way that the British motor industry rallied behind Donald Campbell and his Bluebird record attempts half a century ago, the Bloodhound project is being used to get schoolchildren excited about engineering and technology.

I really do hope that when the blue and orange streak of flag-flying tech finally does those demonstration runs in Cornwall later this year – followed by 800mph and then 1000mph runs on the salt pans of South Africa – it’ll inspire some bright spark somewhere to get inventing. You never know, they might even enter a competition run by a children’s TV show.

Oh, and I never did get my Blue Peter badge.

Adaptive Cruise Control is too clever by half – but I’m hooked

Driving a Golf on motorways can involve a leap of faith

AN ERRANT Transit van tears off the slip road and onto the motorway, straight into your path. You’re hurtling towards Ford’s finest at bang-on 70mph, acutely aware that a nasty collision isn’t a million miles away. Your right foot quivers nervously towards the brake pedal – yet you do absolutely nothing.

This was me last Friday, taking a leap of motoring faith on the M11. Despite being completely and painfully aware of everything around me I had to resist every ounce of brainpower telling me to tap the middle pedal. Even though I was in full control I’d delegated the decision to a car, and this worried me a lot.

I’m by no means a brilliant driver and I’m sure any half-decent petrolhead would make mincemeat of me on a track day, but logic dictates that a Volkswagen Golf TDI BlueMotion can’t be as smart as I am. Except it is, of course.

A few femtoseconds before I haul in the anchors an unguided hand works out Mr Daily Star Reader in his Transit is tootling along at 10mph less than I am and gently slows the Golf down, working out what the safe distance from the van’s rump is and keeping me at it. Any instant where he puts his foot down is matched by a gentle throb from the Golf’s turbodiesel as it speeds up. If he slows down, the VW slows down. It’s automotive witchcraft, and I’m a convert.

I know that Adaptive Cruise Control has been around for ages – Jaguar was fitting it to the XJ when Liberty X were all the rage – but it’s only now that it’s making its way into mass-market cars. It turns an invention that was frankly rubbish into something that genuinely makes long-distance driving easier.

The only time ‘dumb’ cruise control, as I now call it, works is on a motorway at 3am. Try it at any other time and you’re either frantically thumbing the buttons like a Playstation-addicted teenager, or stomping on the brakes to prevent your car being involved in a rear-end shunt. The Golf’s adaptive system turned it into a guided missile, able to adapt instantly to its surroundings.

You absolutely have to be on top of things – it won’t slam on if Mr Transit does up front – but it meant my feet could take it easy on a five-hour slog up from Kent the other night. Normally I’m a bit resistant to new tech, but Adaptive Cruise Control is genuinely brilliant.

Mass-market cars are cleverer than ever, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The Golf’s already asked if it can write next week’s column…

Lotus – The Movie! Why it won’t happen anytime soon

Lotus makes some of the best handling cars on the market today

IF LOTUS were a bloke he’d have had his life story turned into a Hollywood movie by now – probably with Christian Bale playing the lead role.

It’s a compelling enough tale. A troubled young individual who grew up on a farm in Norfolk ends up hanging out with the world’s F1 stars, James Bond and that bloke from The Prisoner. Then he ends up falling in with a dodgy American entrepreneur and narrowly avoiding jail, losing loads of money in the process – before bouncing back spectacularly by winning Britain’s petrolheads over with his charm and character. But then he gets big ideas of taking on Ferrari, ends up cocking it up again and annoys his accountants.

Lotus has all sorts of baggage attached to it but none of it matters a jot when you’re at the helm of one on an open road. I’ve driven a couple of Hethel’s products over the years and they’ve all – from the 1970s Elan +2 to a brand new Evora S – been pretty much unbeatable when it comes to ride and handling. Even the 1990s Elan, which plenty of pub critics will kid you is a bit rubbish because it’s front-wheel-drive, was years ahead of its time when it came to mid-bend agility.

But the really important thing about Lotus isn’t all those dusty old F1 trophies or the pictures of the (now late) Sir Roger Moore posing next to a white Esprit; it’s all the work its engineers do behind the scenes on ordinary, everyday cars. Vauxhall and Proton are just about the only ones who’ll admit to having Lotus experts work on their cars’ handling but there are plenty of others who use its services; if your car doesn’t corner like a drunken tea trolley then it’s probably down to Lotus know-how.

Which is why I’m glad that a majority stake in Lotus has finally been snapped up by Geely, a Chinese manufacturer. You might not have heard of them but they’ve owned Volvo for the past seven years, and the Swedes seem to be doing rather well out of it.

I’m optimistic that Lotus will be allowed to thrive with a new influx of cash, rather like Jaguar Land Rover has under Indian ownership. For too long it’s depended on the Evora, a model launched back in 2008, and the Elise, which can trace its roots back to the early 1990s. Both are brilliant, but with the right investment Lotus should be able to develop some world class cars.

Starting with a new Elan, hopefully. Maybe the movie script writers should put their pens down for now…

Why drive-in cinemas are more relevant than you think

Why drive-in cinemas are more relevant than you think.jpg

ELECTRICALLY adjustable leather seats, massive cupholders, automatic air con and speakers so powerful they can wake the dead. It’s amazing how much cinemas have come on these days.

Going out to catch a movie increasingly involves levels of luxury you’d normally find in a Mercedes or Jaguar showroom – but then you also need a Jaguar-sized budget to pay for it.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that I can remember putting up with nasty fold-out chairs and sticky floors to catch Jumanji in Southport’s old ABC cinema, but then the entire experience came in at under a fiver. Fast forward to today’s multiplexes and stocking up on two adult tickets and snacks can cost four or five times that.

Which is why I was intrigued to try an alternative last weekend. The future of watching films isn’t Netflix – it involves going back to the 1950s. Drive-in cinemas, to be exact.

The one I tried out costs £25 per car. Expensive if you’re travelling alone, but rock up in an MPV rammed with youngsters and it’s a bargain night out. Comfort depends entirely on your choice of wheels, and while I can now confirm that an S-registered Toyota Avensis is not as comfy as the premium seats at your nearest multiplex you can talk as loudly as you like without annoying anyone else watching the movie.

The only downside is the sound. Anyone old enough to remember proper drive-in cinemas will know that you pulled up next to pre-installed speakers and wound down the windows, but the class of 2017 involves flicking your radio in to the right frequency. Great for a crisp, clear sound, but not when you miss a crucial bit of plot because there’s interference or you’re suddenly redirected to the traffic news.

Nor am I convinced I’d want to sit in a medium-sized hatchback for two hours in the depths of winter, trying to listen to bits of movie dialogue over the sound of hailstones bouncing off the windscreen, but at this time of year drive-ins are a right giggle. Buy your popcorn at the supermarket earlier on, load your car up with mates and park up the film, which given the audiences being targeted means it’ll likely be something nostalgic and catchy. I ended up watching Grease, and the following night a mate spent two hours watching Top Gun from a Saab 900.

I’ve long maintained cars solve all sorts of problems. I just wasn’t expecting the rocketing cost of going to the cinema to be one of them.

An electric car game-changer is nearly here

It is likely carmakers like Tesla will use the new technology first

ANYONE who grew up watching Space 1999 needn’t feel disappointed. We might not be living on the Moon and eating everything in pill form, but the world today’s a lot more advanced than it used to be.

You can tap your finger against a handheld electronic screen and a van carrying your shopping rocks up a couple of hours later – and chances are that’s only because the supermarket isn’t allowed to deliver it by drone yet. We have trains that go under the sea and stealth fighter planes that fly above it. It beats driving home in your Morris Oxford and watching Terry and June over a bowl of Angel Delight, that’s for sure.

Just about every conceivable piece of technology has come along in leaps and bounds – with the exception of two things. You might not have noticed that the fastest transatlantic flights of today are a lot slower than Concorde could manage, but you’ll almost certainly have noticed that phones can barely manage a day before running out of breath. If you’re reading this on your smartphone via Champnews.com it might not even make it to the end of this article.

But an Israeli company that reckons it might have cracked the problem of rubbish smartphone batteries might have inadvertently created a genuine motoring game-changer. The smart money is that as of next year you’ll be able to use its tech to charge your phone up in a few minutes – and because electric cars run on the same sort of batteries it figures that it should work equally well on those too. Perhaps not unsurprisingly half the car industry’s keeping a very close eye on how StoreDot’s boffins are getting on.

Don’t expect it to revolutionise the roads overnight. It’s worth remembering that while nearly 100,000 plug-in cars were sold across the UK in 2016 that’s still nowhere near the number of Golfs or Focuses you all buy. It’ll also make sense that the most expensive offerings will be fitted with quick-charging tech first, so it’ll be a while before it filters down to the Nissans and Mitsubishis that dominate the ‘leccy car market.

But once it does break through to the mainstream the issue of battery anxiety – and the main reason you wouldn’t buy an electric car – will disappear. The cars themselves are absolutely fine, but no longer will you have to worry about an eight-hour wait if you start running low in deepest Snowdonia. You’ll be able to pull into a filling station and be on your way a couple of minutes later.

That idea might catch on. Eating food pills on the Moon it ain’t, but it’s a brave new world all the same.