Ford Fiesta – still brilliant in a high-tech Britain

THE future can hang on a minute.

I know that we’re supposed to boldly sailing – on a solar-powered catamaran, presumably – into a brave new world of lab-grown, meat-free burgers delivered by drones, but right now there’s still a McDonalds on every busy road and a JD Wetherspoon in virtually every town centre. Your whole life can be conducted on Android and yet sales of vinyl records are up year-on-year. Perhaps most pertinently, for all the talk that electric cars and automation are the future, last time I looked the decidedly analogue Ford Fiesta was still Britain’s best-selling new car.

At the moment all the muttering is about how the humble supermini is about to embrace zero-emissions motoring. Renault’s Zoe has been chipping away at this bit of the market for a while (don’t worry, the Clio’s still very much available), but Vauxhall is being brave and launching its Corsa in all-electric form first, and it’s a similar story for Peugeot’s latest 208.

But while there is a plug-in hybrid Fiesta on the way the current range depends on a blend of rather more familiar petrol and turbodiesel engines, and it feels all the better for it. It’s as bit like Liam Gallagher – yes, it’s the same old act, and yet only last weekend it was good enough to headline Glastonbury.

I know because last weekend I spent 700 miles thumping up and down the British road network in a Zetec-spec EcoBoost – and couldn’t, with the exception of three very minor moans, couldn’t knock it. With the current Fiesta, introduced 18 months ago, it feels like you sit on the seats rather than in them, it still lacks mid-range thump in one-litre form, and on the motorway the ride’s a bit more fidgety than I’d ideally like, but that’s about it. In other respect Ford’s taken what it had with the 2009-era Fiesta, revisited absolutely everything, and quietly made it better rather than reinventing the wheel.

So while the turbocharged three cylinder engine still revels in a few revs to get results, it managed to average a fairly hefty fifty to the gallon – and I wasn’t on any sort of eco run. On the motorways it was long-legged enough to make light work of a voyage to Scotland and back – and when it wasn’t it could still entertain me on the B-roads, offering just enough feedback through its chunky, three-spoke steering wheel. Even the little things won me over; plenty of superminis integrate their stereo systems into a touchscreen system these days but the Fiesta gives you old-fashioned buttons beneath it as well, so you could flick between Joy Division and The Cure without losing the sat nav.

I suspect the reason the Ford Fiesta, even when every other new car is a crossover, electric car or plug-in hybrid, is still Britain’s biggest seller is because it’s ruddy good at what it does. The Suzuki Swift might match it when comes to generating grins, VW’s Polo has a more premium feel and the Fiat 500 is a lot more charming, but it’s tricky to think of a better all-rounder.

Kia XCeed – I hope it’s as good as it looks

CROSSOVERS are chunky, supermarket-friendly beasts of burden. Coupes are sinewy, slippery conversation-starters that put looks above all else, and to hell with the practicality. So combining the two is about as sensible as getting Stormzy to present the next series of Planet Earth, right?

Erm, wrong, if the number of just such cars – Coupe Utility Vehicles, or CUVs, if you like your cars summed up by an irritating set of initials – on the way is anything to go by. They’re jacked-up hatchbacks with off-roader proportions, in the vein of Nissan’s Qashqai, so they should be perfect for stuffing full of mates and suitcases for a long weekend away, but then they’ve been treated to swooping rooflines that rob rear headroom and steal valuable bootspace.

That’d be fine if they looked the part as a result – and I know style’s an entirely subjective thing – but I’m not sure at least two of the latest arrivals do. The person who did the front end of BMW’s second-generation X6 has done a superb job of matching a nicely aggressive ‘double kidney’ radiator grille with some neatly-shaped headlights – but then his sketches appear to have been blown up to 300% on a photocopier and hastily attached to an entirely different car. But that’s a £53,000 flight of luxury, we’re as the key battleground here and rather smaller CUVs costing well under half that.

Ford’s Puma is rather better but I can’t help unseeing the mental image the delightfully mischievous Sniff Petrol website has stuck in my head – it’s a good-looking CUV that, judging by its facial expression, has just walked in on its parents when it shouldn’t have.

If it were my money I’d go for a crossover that nails handsome proportions and neat detailing without passing itself off as a small coupe – take a bow, Skoda Kamiq – but if you reckon a rapper really can do BBC wildlife documentaries then I’m going to have to point you in Kia’s direction.

There’s a reason why the new XCeed, which essentially the C’eed hatchback on stilts, looks far better than I’d been expecting. It’s styled by the same man who worked on the original Audi TT, and the same eye for detail that made that such a hit seems to have worked its way onto this new arrival too. I even like the little flourishes of body-coloured trim on the inside too, which definitely have a hint of Fiat Coupe about them. It’s sensibly priced, too, starting at £20,795 when it goes on sale here in September.

So if you insist on an off-roader-inspired car that willing chucks some of its practicality in the bin in favour of a rakish roofline, I’d make it this one because it actually delivers on the looks front at sensible money.

Although I’d still buy a Kamiq and a secondhand Ford Puma – the two-door coupe from the Nineties, that is – instead. Sorry if I’m being boring, but I’d rather Stormzy stuck to rapping…

Why everyone loved the slowest car at Goodwood this year

SO THE brake dust has settled and the tyre marks on the tarmac have finally been swept up. The Goodwood Festival of Speed – arguably now the nation’s biggest event for seeing exciting new cars – is over for another year.

Anyone who ventured the 270 miles south (I’ve long thought that the Duke of Richmond should set up a northern spin-off, but that’s another story) would have seen the new Land Rover Defender, albeit as a heavily disguised test mule, ahead of its official launch. They also got a sneak preview of the new Lotus supercar, the Evija, and a chance to check out Ford’s latest ST hot hatch.

But the highlight is getting see all sorts of shiny supercars, single seaters and race and rally stars going “up the hill” – as in being driven to within an inch of their lives up a road snaking its way through the grounds of Goodwood House. A 20-year-old record was smashed by Volkswagen, which pummelled its all-electric ID.R racer along the course in a staggering 39.9 seconds. I’m not sure what the slowest time up the hill at this year’s event was – but I’ve a sneaking suspicion it might have been me.

I know this because even though the batch of cars getting ready to thunder past the Goodwood crowds wasn’t even within sniffing distance of the ID.R’s vital stats, they were still pretty well endowed when it came to outright oomph; entries included the Ferrari GTC-4 Lusso, Lamborghini’s Huracán and McLaren’s 570S Spider. Meanwhile, some very brave people at Citroën asked if I’d like to have a crack. In a 2CV.

Sportingly, they’d given me the fastest version on offer – a 1989 2CV6, which has a 602cc two-cylinder engine rather than the earlier 425cc version – but that still meant I had just 29bhp to play with and a 0-60mph time of 29.8 seconds. Ever watched For Your Eyes Only and wondered how Roger Moore managed to get away from a brace of Peugeot-driving baddies in one? He didn’t – the cars they used in the film had been fitted with engines from the GS, whereas the car I’d been entrusted with hadn’t.

But that didn’t matter a jot once the brand-new supercars had screeched off into the distance, racking up times the French big-seller could only dream of, because everyone loved the 2CV. Crowds unmoved by yet another Ferrari cheered and waved when they saw it leaning and lurching through the corners, its skinny tyres doing their best to squeeze every last mile an hour out of the car. A few minutes later it’d chalked up yet another fan. It’s the first time I’ve really driven a 2CV for any meaningful length of time, and I loved its packaging, its characterful two-cylinder clatter, its light but beautifully communicative steering and, best of all, how it keeps motoring to the bare minimum and puts 110 per cent into the few things it does have.

Never have I been so delighted to have finished last – but if it’s smiles-per-pound we’re judging this year’s Festival of Speed on, I reckon I’ve found the standout winner.

Why a V8 Aston Martin deserves to be James Bond’s next co-star

HE OTHER week Prince Charles dropped in to see Daniel Craig to see how work on the new James Bond film is shaping up. Which is probably a good thing, because I’d like to think he also had a quiet word with the film’s producers and asked them nicely to hurry up with making it.

But with the world’s cameras firmly trained on the Prince of Wales’ visit it almost felt as though a crucial new detail from the film, confirmed by the official James Bond Twitter account, seemed weirdly overlooked. I’d been expecting the Aston Martin DB5 – having already shown up in Skyfall and Spectre – to make a comeback, but what I hadn’t been counting on was one of my favourite film cars of all time, the Aston Martin V8 from The Living Daylights to rock up as well.  

But some fan footage taken during the filming confirmed possibly the best bit of movie-related news I’ve heard all year. Until now, the 1987 Aston has spent most of its time sat in museums looking a bit unloved, but look on YouTube and there’s a short clip of sweeping along a rather stunning-looking Norwegian road, being chased by a cameraman in a helicopter. I’m not entirely sure how the film’s makers are going to explain it, seeing as Bond fans will know that a car with the same registration was blown up on a Czechoslovakian hillside fairly early on into The Living Daylights, but I’m glad that it’s back.

More importantly, I’m hoping that Aston’s glad, too. For years the DB-generation Astons have been the real stars of its heritage operations, so much so that it’s started making some of its biggest hits again for (very rich) car nuts. Last year it announced a run of DB5s virtually identical to the one Sean Connery turned into a household name in Goldfinger – complete with primitive 1960s navigation system, fake guns and revolving numberplate – and now it’s resurrected the DB4 GT Zagato, a super-rare 1950s model reclothed in a sleeker, Italian designed skin to aid aerodynamics.

But the Astons I – and a lot of other people of my age, who are now in the position to buy old cars – grew up with were the much later V8s, and I bet I’m not the only thirtysomething for whom Tim Dalton’s much grittier take on saving the world was James Bond. I would love to see Aston Martin giving its V8s – particularly the Vantage, with its colour-coded, blanked-off radiator grille and 400bhp on tap – the same treatment as its DB models of the 1960s, and for a limited run of re-created models to head back to the showrooms. I’ll never be able to afford one, of course, but in a world of plug-in hybrids and me-too crossovers there’s definitely room for a car like it.

Until then I’ll carry on waiting for the next James Bond film – which is already about six months late, no matter how brilliant it is. Perhaps another member of the Royal Family can have a quiet word with them…

The London taxi – now available in van form

THE MOST surprising car I’ve driven in the past year has just pulled another hankerchief out of its sleeve. The London black cab is now available – as a van.

It just doesn’t sound right somehow, does it? The Friday night ride home of choice across much of the capital – and an increasingly familiar sight in this part of the world too, particularly in Liverpool and Manchester – has been transformed from the B-pillars backwards into something that resembles a bloated Volkswagen Caddy, but beneath the skin shares the same combination of electric motors (and some internal combustion back-up, in the form of a 1.5-litre petrol engine as a range extender) as its more familiar, fare-fetching cousin.

While the London Electric Vehicle Company claims it can travel 377 miles in one hit – meaning that should The Champion ever launch an Inverness edition it’ll be able to deliver a freshly-printed batch without having to stop to charge up – it’s actually pitched as a response to what it calls “the Amazon-isation of retail”. In other words, all those short trips from parcel depots to your door because every other person on your street orders their stuff online. That’s a lot of short hops for blokes in vans – and a lot of air pollution if it isn’t kept in check.

But I reckon the van has the potential to be a hit for much the same reason the black cab is – it’s really, really good at what it does. When I drove the TX taxi last year I reckoned its ability to take contactless payment and provide drunken passengers with an in-built WiFi zone for their Instagram selfies was smart stuff – but not half as clever as the way it drove. A seven-seater that’s roughly the same size as a Land Rover Discovery Sport had the sort of turning circle you’d expect from a Smart, was a doddle to drive and had all of its electronic trickery harnessed by a Tesla-esque touchscreen that dominated the dashboard and was intuitively easy to use. If LECV can give a van – even one that does look a bit like a drunken Austin A35 from the front – the same sort of qualities in something than can carry two Euro pallets, then I reckon it’ll quickly build up a healthy queue of fans.

In fact, the biggest battle will be the one thing LEVC hasn’t announced yet – the price. All that’s been confirmed is that it’ll be less than the £55k its taxi cousin currently costs, but bear in mind Nissan’s all-electric NV200, with a 174-mile range, costs £19,116 before VAT.

You might not be able to get to Inverness in it, but that’s a 35-grand saving. The black cab makers might have to pull off some more magic to square that difference…

Noise-sensitive cameras? Look elsewhere, TVR owners…

I STILL haven’t finished writing my letters of apology to the neighbours yet. I own an old car that’s a bit noisy – and I had to fire it up at 5am the other morning.

It’s a Reliant Scimitar GTE with a hulking great V6 at one end and some ‘cherry bomb’ exhausts at the other and – being fully aware of its Pete Townshend-esque vocal qualities – I tend to restrict its outings to Sunday afternoons, when everyone’s either filing out of churches or heading into pubs. But on this particular occasion, following an incident where it cut out in some motorway roadworks and a subsequent 12-hour AA breakdown recovery, I had to briefly start it up so I could nurse it from the recovery truck and back into the garage. For all the poor folk who had a Ford-powered wake-up call as a result – I’m sorry.

But what’s worrying me, and a lot of other TVR, hot hatch and motorbike devotees, is something that the Department for Transport’s trying out at the moment; noise-detecting numberplate-recognition cameras.

I completely understand why they’re being trialled, particularly because I live on a busy residential thoroughfare where lads barely beyond their GCSEs blast past at stupid ‘o’ clock on two-stroke bikes that sound worse than Madonna’s recent Eurovision performance. Not only are these oiks thoroughly annoying everyone else, but the DfT’s worried that the resultant noise levels are actually breaking the law, because the bikes have been modified illegally. Fair enough.

But what I am worried about are people like my TVR Chimaera-owning mate getting stick from the locals if said trials are a success, and there being a slow but relentless sleepwalk into any legal-but-loud vehicle being condemned because it’s got an exhaust that’s a bit shoutier than normal. I’ve already mentioned that – emergency breakdown recovery aside – I self-police the Scimitar’s start-ups to avoid winding the neighbours up, but what if I want to take it out for a run to a country pub one evening? Could I, in a not-so-distant future, earn an ASBO simply for driving it back home again?

This isn’t about defending people who ride illegally-modified motorbikes around late at night, but making sure anyone who owns an older (and slightly noisier car) isn’t caught out. Same goes for anyone with a cherished Moto Guzzi in their garage or a prized Lambretta taking up residence in their living room – and don’t get me started on my various mates who own old buses! All of which are machines that might not pass noise regulations designed for brand new cars, but passed every law when they were new and are owned completely legally by law-abiding taxpayers who just want to get on with their hobby.

The Department for Transport is playing a tricky game here. It’s doing the right thing by going after the folk who keep everyone else up at night with stuff that isn’t even legal – but I dread the day that law-abiding chaps and chap-ettes in their TVRs are vilified too.

BMW has made the 1-Series a bit worse – by making it a lot better

WHAT you’re looking at here – well, at least it would be, in some weird parallel universe where BMW had done things a bit differently – is the latest Rover 45.

The reason I mention BMW’s ill-fated six-year ownership of the West Midlands’ biggest carmaker is because that was originally going to be Munich’s way into mass market cars, with the 75 topping off a range of hatchbacks and saloons that would’ve taken the fight to Ford, Vauxhall, and so on. But it wasn’t, Rover is long gone, and instead it’s the 1-Series that picked up that baton instead.

This week BMW’s started taking orders for the all-new, third-generation model, which hits the company’s UK showrooms in September. It could be a pivotal moment in BMW’s gradual quest for world domination (which, bizarrely, also includes teaming up with direct rivals Mercedes to develop electric models), because it’s having to drop something that’s at the heart of everything BMW stands for in order to make it a better car.

Rear-wheel-drive. BMW used to bang on in its adverts about how sending all the oomph to the back wheels made their cars better balanced and that little bit more satisfying to drive than their front-hauled rivals – and if all the ones I’ve driven over the years are anything to go by, from 320Ds to M5s, I’d have to agree. But BMW’s insistence on fitting its smallest offering with it too meant it was offering the first rear-drive hatchback since the Vauxhall Chevette went out of production – and they were compromised cars for much the same reasons.

In a big, powerful saloon it makes sense to send all that horsepower to the back, but in a smaller hatchback the propshaft robs space from the interior, which is why the outgoing 1-Series always had a chunky transmission tunnel between the driver and passenger and felt oddly cramped in the back. The new, front-wheel-drive 1-Series is a lot roomier than the outgoing car, which for the families who actually live with them day-to-day are really going to appreciate.

The bit that BMW are going to have be spot on with, though, is their claim that it’s more agile and fun to drive than the old 1-Series – which was a right laugh on a quiet country road – was. Get it right, and make it feel like a properly sorted BMW should, and it’ll have a generation of faithful customers who value that sort of thing hooked for years. It’ll particularly matter when it eventually brings out a go-faster 1M model – a lot of people who own these take them on track days and want to drift delicately around corners, and it’s going to be tricky to pull that off in a front-wheel-drive hatchback.

Get it wrong and BMW will be accused of selling out by going front-wheel-drive. In which case it might as well have stuck with the Rover 45.

You can relive a bit of British Grand Prix history – in just about any car you like

Whether your car is a MINI or a 911 - it can take part in events at Aintree circuit

IT’S NOT often that you can say a Fiat Stilo is as good at something as a Porsche 911 is – but then it’s not every day that parts of the old Aintree race circuit are opened up for go-faster fun.

No, not that Aintree circuit – if you’ve ended up here by mistake because you’re actually looking for The Champion sports pages then I’m afraid to say that there are no jockeys, highly decorated ladies’ hats or whinnying thoroughbreds here. Nope, this particular course is the one famed for racing of the motor variety, including the very first British Grand Prix won by Sir Stirling Moss. He tackled it in a single-seater Mercedes W196 – but if you wanted to follow in his tyre tracks last weekend then all you needed was a racing helmet and a secondhand hatchback.

Liverpool Motor Club holds a couple of track days a year on the surviving bits of the track – and for a fiver to spectate I reckon it’s a bargain-priced way of spending a couple of hours listening to screeching tyres and watching all manner of motors scrabbling for the best lines through the sweeping right-handers. I popped along last Saturday during the Bank Holiday weekend and the thing that surprised me was the mind-boggling variety of what was out on track. Sure, you’d expect Elises, 911s and Honda Type-Rs on a track day, but I wasn’t expecting the next car to barrel into the first corner to be an 05-registered Fiat Stilo. Or a TVR Tuscan virtually unchanged from when it took part in the bonkers Tuscan Challenge race series 20 years ago. Or an Opel Manta, for that matter.

It’s good, old-fashioned car-related fun that doesn’t get hung up on who’s got the priciest entry or the quickest lap time – there was a chap with a Lister ‘Knobbly’ continuation racer, for instance, but the chaps taking part in Ford Fiestas had equally big grins on their faces after venturing back into the paddock.

More importantly, it keeps part of the North West’s motoring heritage alive – yes, I know that the full Aintree circuit that Sir Stirling would’ve diced with Fangio on closed in the 1960s, but by having Porsches and Lotuses screeching around the club circuit it keeps the idea that Aintree isn’t just about horse racing in the wider public imagination.

And any element of keeping history that involves hoofing about in a Fiat Stilo has got to be worth it for the amusement factor alone. Count me in.

The BMW 7-Series is a cool car – shame about the new front end

I’M GOING to stick my neck out and say it; I reckon that the 7-Series is the only truly cool car in BMW’s current range.

There are plenty of exceptionally talented all-rounders – take a bow, current 5-Series – donning the blue-and-white propeller atop their bonnets but nowadays they’re a bit too everyday, especially when you consider that the 3-Series outsells the Ford Mondeo. The M2 is a properly focused performance hero of the old school, but it’s also a bit obvious, and while the i8 comes close because it’s a hybrid that just happens to be a supercar with butterfly doors, it’s also a bit too look-at-me to be considered cool. Oh, and there are plenty of BMWs that don’t even come close. Who, at a company that’s built its entire reputation on perfectly balanced rear-drivers, though the 2-Series Active Tourer was a good idea?

But wafting about in a needlessly big, £70,000 BMW, especially when the 5-Series and the X5 off-roader already do everything it can for less, takes a particularly devoted sort of owner. To drive a 7-Series – and you invariably will, because owners tend to take the wheel rather than being chauffeured – you have to walk past the S-Class in the Mercedes showroom over the road, forget the roomier digs of the Range Rover and dismiss everything made by Jaguar, Lexus and Audi for this sort of money. It’s also the getaway car of choice in Bodyguard, for added petrolhead points.

But why – and I’m not sure if anyone at BMW’s headquarters in Munich gets The Champion delivered – did they have to give the latest version that massively oversized radiator grille? BMW itself describes it as ‘significantly larger’ than the double-kidney grille fronting the outgoing 7-Series, and points out that it’s now fitted with clever electronic flaps that can open up to give the engine – be it the V12 or, far more likely, the six-pot diesel – an extra hit of cold air when things heat up. It just about worked on the new X7 off-roader but on here it looks as though someone at BMW spent ages crafting a beautiful radiator grille, phoned over the details to the chaps working on the rest of the car but then got cut off just as he was about to relay over the dimensions.

So it’s a definite nein on the front end but I’ll happily have the rest of it. While I’m tempted to say the range-topping M760Li is the coolest of the only truly cool car BMW currently makes, simply because no one really needs to have four-wheel-drive and a 6.6-litre V12 with 585bhp, I think the one to go for is the 745e. That’s the model where you’ll get a petrol-powered straight six – the sort of engine Munich does better than anyone else – and a hybrid electric powerplant, so you can enjoy beautifully balanced BMW handling and glide happily into low emissions areas because you’ve got a hybrid.

You’ll just have to hope that nobody’s looking at that front-end, that’s all.

Why Peugeot buying Jaguar would make sense

HERE’S a priceless bit of pub trivia for you. Europe’s biggest producer of pizzas is based not in Naples or Milan, but on an industrial estate in Leyland, and owned by a thoroughly sensible German conglomerate.

Yet the grub, even though it’s proudly made by Lancashire folk and bankrolled by the Dr Oetker corporation, is unmistakeably Italian. In much the same way that I took my other half out for a spaghetti carbonara made by a bloke in Lincolnshire and created from UK-sourced ingredients, but the enormous Italian tricolore over the restaurant’s front door said all you needed to know about its national identity.

So it shouldn’t bother you even slightly that the new Land Rover Defender is going to be made in Slovakia, by a company that’s owned by an Indian conglomerate. Or – scratch that last part, if the latest rumours are correct – by a French conglomerate. Specifically, the one behind the Peugeot 308 and the Citroën C4 Cactus.

Jaguar Land Rover, at least at the time of writing, has been swift to deny any talk of its Indian owners at Tata selling up after a decade in the leather-lined driving seat, but I don’t actually reckon it’s a bad thing. Largely because Peugeot and Citroen have tried for years to blag the golf club parking spaces so typically bagged by BMW, Audi and Mercedes models – and never really nailed it.

Readers with particularly long memories might recall that Citroën owned Maserati for a bit, which resulted in the wonderful SM coupé but not much else. Then it tried a succession of big-engined four-doors under its own names – the Citroën XM and Peugeot 605 spring to mind – but the vast majority of would-be buyers outside of France shrugged and bought BMWs anyway. More recently, it’s tried doing what Toyota did with Lexus by spinning Citroën’s more upmarket models into its DS brand – but why go to all the bother when you can simply buy out the people who brought you the Range Rover and Jaguar XJR?

I’m still not entirely sure why Peugeot-Citroën bought Vauxhall but snapping up JLR makes complete sense, as it gives it a foothold in all those markets where brand prestige matter. I just hope that they give it the same autonomy that Tata and – to a lesser extent, Ford before it – did, allowing the experts behind Land Rover’s clever off-roading tech and Jaguar’s beautifully honed suspension to get on with what they know best.

Do that and they’ll still be the Dr Oetker frozen pizzas of the car world – it won’t matter who funds it and where they’re built, because the people who really matter, the people buying them, will think of them as brilliant British cars.

Get it wrong and it’ll be hotpot and Sauerkraut on the same plate. Yuck!