Author: David Simister

Editor at Classic Car Weekly and Motoring Correspondent at The Champion newspaper. Addicted to car shows. Loves driving great cars - and buying rusty ones.

Why the Mercedes A-Class is a bit too clever for its own good

“IT LOOKS like you’re writing a column for The Champion. Can I help?”

Anyone even vaguely familiar with Clippy, the relentlessly cheery – and endlessly irritating – virtual assistant for Microsoft Word will know how I feel this week. Every time you tried even the simplest task, like opening your latest missive with “Dear”, would instantly be met with a bombardment of questions about exactly how you’d like to write a letter.

Thankfully Clippy was quickly marched into Bill Gates’ office and promptly issued with his P45 many years ago, but I’m beginning to wonder whether he’s since managed to get another job – this time, residing in the infotainment system of the latest Mercedes A-Class. I’ve just spent several hundred miles in the company of a mid-range A180d, but it felt more like a shift rather than a drive. When all of its considerable amount of in-car tech is up and running it might as well be a work station on wheels – perhaps with a photocopier and a water cooler in the corner – than a car.

Its pièce de résistance is a double-screen, interactive display that starts behind the steering wheel and runs right across to the centre of the dashboard and controls every function imaginable in the A-Class, from the cruise control to how much bass you’d like on the tunes being played through its Bluetooth connection. It is very cleverly engineered and I’m sure that if I spent about a month going through every sub-menu fiddling with the settings it would be fine-tuned to match every minute facet of my personality, but because I hadn’t – and because it was doing its best to try and guess them – it did make me wonder why Mercedes had given the important gig of running the A-Class to poor old Clippy.

Leaving a car park, for instance, does not require a feed from four car-mounted cameras to be instantly fired up – not when I have mirrors, windows and a moveable neck that can already do all of that. Nor do I want, when I’m squeezing through a tight gap, a collision warning system to chime in at the precise moment that I’m concentrating. It’s also not terribly intuitive to use – it’s controlled via the steering wheel, a touch screen and a sensor pad on the centre console, the latter of which is mounted right next to the cupholders. Which means you end up accidentally exiting the satnav when you grab your cup of coffee. It even has a wrist support to stop you getting repetitive strain injury. I’m used to these doing an eight-hour stint in an office, but in a car?

All of which meant I ended up doing what most Microsoft Word users did about 20 years ago – switching off Clippy altogether – and driving around with as much of the in-car tech as possible shut down. As soon as I did that I actually enjoyed the A-Class for what it really is – it’s beautifully built, decent to drive, a lot nicer to look at than the previous model and, in A180d form at least, equipped with a turbodiesel that delivers plenty of mid-range thump on motorways and dual carriageways.

I reckon it’s the best A-Class so far, once you let the engineering – rather than the tech – do the talking. Brilliant, I’ve made it to the end of this week’s column without Clippy chiming in!

“It looks like you’re signing off for another week. Can I hel…”

The solution to struggling high streets? More car shows

SORRY, Arriva and Stagecoach, but you’re just going to have to re-route Southport’s busiest bus routes. The heart of Birkdale village works so much better when it’s full of old Morgans and MGs.

That’s the conclusion I came away with after stopping off last Saturday for the Birkdale Village Summer Fayre – it had a fairly sizeable car display, which in itself is nothing unusual, but I’ve got to applaud the powers-that-be for being bold enough to shut off the bit of Liverpool Road right by the station to make it happen.

I’ve been to plenty of shows over the years where it’s the centre of a town or village itself that becomes the venue, as opposed to a nearby playing field or pub car park, and I know it takes a special sort of perseverance to make it happen. There’s a great show in Prestatyn which has been cordoning off key bits of prime North Wales shopping territory for its Bank Holiday show, and I know that closer to home the Ormskirk MotorFest has made the trick of shutting off the town’s one-way system its schtick.

In every instance the result’s the same; the place is jam-packed with people shuffling through for a closer look. People, who I’m delighted to report, also seemed to be cheerily assembled around the tables outside every restaurant, pub and café within a half-mile radius. I’m sure there’ll be a meeting of Birkdale’s various movers and shakers in the next few days and something vaguely official to confirm it, but I’d be amazed if all those families who duly hopped off Merseyrail’s finest for a closer look didn’t treat the village to one of its busiest trading days this year.

It’s good from a petrolhead perspective too; if you’re reading this there’s a sporting chance you’ll already know exactly what a 1949 Riley RMA looks like, but for me the real highlight was hearing all the assorted ooohs and ahhhs from folk who don’t. Same goes for the 1960 MGA parked up on the other side of Liverpool Road. If you’re a small child who’s been brought up on nothing but Kia Cee’ds then I can’t think of better-looking example of what proper cars, with delicate curves, chrome bumpers and rumbling exhaust notes, look and sound like.

I’d also like to share with you, in the interests of fair and balanced reporting, some of the views of the many people who enjoyed the 60 cars on show…but I can’t because I was too busy ogling the 1974 Lamborghini Espada that one of the exhibitors had brought along.

Any village centre that has an Espada – which is considerably cooler than any Countach or Diablo – in it has got to be worth visiting, so I reckon in the interests of supporting local businesses it should be made a permanent fixture. Apologies, bus users, you’ll just have to put up with being re-routed…

Electric isn’t the threat to classic cars – autonomous vehicles are

I MIGHT have to take an extended retreat on a mountain-top monastery and try and meditate my way out of having what – to a dyed-in-the-wool petrolhead – are clearly unholy thoughts. For a split second the other night, I thought buying an electric car might actually be a good idea.

They have, from the various ones I’ve tried, come a long way in barely a decade. If I was being sensible I might be tempted by a BMW i3, but if I wasn’t it’d be an emphatic yes to Renault’s Twizy. What’s more, either would make perfect sense on my current commute; a 20-mile drive to and from an office which, helpfully, already has charging points on site.

That’s the way the nation’s moving; for all those longer drives I do to North Wales and the remoter bits of Yorkshire I’m still very much an advocate of internal combustion, but for an increasingly large swathe of the population it’s getting ever easier to go all-electric, especially with unleaded nudging £1.30 a litre.

But that’s not the worry I had for a classic owner who wrote to me the other day, pondering what implications Britain’s lunge towards zero emissions motoring had for his Jaguar Mk2. For me, it’s autonomous vehicles, not electric ones, that pose the biggest challenge.

Again, these are getting better every year, but until you remove humans and their awkward habit of making irrational, last-minute decisions out of the equation, you’re still going to get crashes. Logically, the only way to do that is to have autonomous-only roads – a sort of Docklands Light Railway for cars, if you like – where cars that don’t have that driver-free capability can no longer roam.

There are no plans from the Department for Transport to do this, but it’s already looking at technology that’s pointing in that direction, the most obvious being smart motorways that beam traffic information straight onto digital displays on car dashboards. The EU’s already mandated that new cars from 2022 onwards will have speed-limiting tech pre-installed. Even in an all-electric world it isn’t hard to imagine a scenario where people with classic cars would still be able to get petrol from somewhere, but I dread the day when they’re confronted with roads they’re no longer allowed to use.

What’s more – and I know this is a hugely indulgent, selfish thing to admit in our bid to become a cleaner, greener, safer Britain ­– I like driving. Not thrashing a car to within an inch of its life, but taking a great car, learning all of its little facets and characteristics, and exploring our wonderful country with it. Seeing quaint buildings in villages you didn’t know about. Stopping off at canal-side pubs on summer evenings just for the hell of it. And yes, pondering whether the Jaguar Mk2 is better in 3.4-litre form is actually somehow more satisfying and better balanced than the 3.8-litre one, even though prices still suggest everyone’s after the latter.

These are the sort of things you just can’t do if you pre-program your destination into an autonomously-guided electric pod – no matter how good an idea they might briefly seem. Think carefully, chaps in Whitehall…

Come on Boris, let’s educate younger drivers

I’M NOT SURE how I feel about the bloke who used to be the motoring correspondent for GQ – and someone who posted a semi-respectable time as a Top Gear star in a reasonably priced car – being given the keys to an entire country.

Boris Johnson is the new Prime Minister. And I suggest he starts – well, starts once he’s got the small matter of working out whether we’ll be leaving the EU sorted – by sorting out this nonsense about young drivers heading out at night, once and for all.

You might have noticed a slew of headlines in the national newspapers the other day suggesting that, as part of plans to bring in a new graduated driving licence, that newer drivers could face a ban from getting behind the wheel once it goes dark. But once I’d pored through the details of the Department for Transport’s new Road Safety Statement (I know, I should get out more) I couldn’t actually find any details of this rather draconian-sounding plan.

What I did discover were findings from a study suggesting that there was insufficient evidence that 20mph speed limits in urban areas – that’s you, highways people at Sefton Council and Lancashire County Council – had led to a significant change in collisions and casualties. It also noted that the number of annual road fatalities on British roads had barely changed since 2010, despite the volume of traffic increasing by eight per cent.

But what did pique my interest was the Government’s target to increase the number of drivers who’d ventured out after sunset before taking their test from 82.5 per cent to more than 90 per cent; it’s got similar plans for would-be-motorists practising their ability to drive independently, and those getting experience of tricky country roads, which have the highest accident rates.

Let’s go hell for leather, Boris. I reckon the chap who did doughnuts – of the tyre-shredding, not confectionary-based, variety – in a Ginetta in the interests of plugging Brexit will agree emphatically with the idea of up ‘n’ coming motorists being given lessons in what it’s like to rescue an ageing Proton from catastrophic understeer on a greasy country road. Youngsters should be taught just how irritating it is to have an Audi Q3 four inches off their rear bumper on a busy motorway, and how to respond safely; it might stop them becoming the culprit themselves a few years later.

In fact, I’d go even further than that. I’d take them to a private test track and let them feel an ABS system strut its stuff in an emergency stop, before taking them to the pitside café, treating them to four gin and tonics and letting them see for themselves exactly how being hammered knackers your reaction times.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax is all the proof you need that banning stuff doesn’t work – and I reckon taking the same approach with driving and enjoying cars will have exactly the same result. But treating new drivers like adults and showing them how cars react in different situations, might actually encourage them to enjoy them properly…and safely.

Over to you, Boris.

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.