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.

When Tesla outsold the Ford Fiesta

THAT distant noise is the sound of Elon Musk shrieking with elation. Britain’s best-selling new car, according to the latest figures, is the Tesla Model 3.

America’s zero emissions 5-Series rival has finally managed to unseat all the usual candidates – Fiesta, Golf, Corsa, and so on – at the sharp end of the new car sales chart, with Tesla shifting more than 2.5 times as many of them as Vauxhall managed to flog Corsas. It’s good news for Jaguar, too, with the iPace – a European Car of the Year winner, don’t forget – managing to notch up second place.

Or rather, it would be good news if it weren’t for the wider context. The latest figures are for April 2020, when car showrooms were ordered by the government to lock their doors in response to the nationwide coronavirus outbreak. Having seen that new car sales dropped 44 per cent in March, a mate who’s in charge of one of the new car websites joined me in reckoning that April’s figures would be nearer an 80-85 per cent drop. Turns out we were both wrong – the official figure, released yesterday, shows that overall new car sales in the UK were down 97.3%.

The fleet market’s a little bit better, admittedly, but it’s the big boys in the new car market that have taken the biggest hits. Year-on-year Ford’s sales in April were down by 98.3 per cent, VW by 98.6 per cent and Vauxhall’s by a mere 95 per cent, which helps explain the bizarre scenario where the UK’s favourite family hatchbacks are clobbered in the new car sales chart by a Tesla. It only took 658 people – presumably, folk keen to outgun Porsches from the traffic lights, thanks to clever electric car trickery – to stick the Model 3 in the UK sales top spot. The Ford Fiesta, on the other hand, has managed to find 15,962 homes since the start of the year, making it a clear victor when it comes to overall sales for 2020 so far.

So, should Uncle Henry worry about some upstart from California de-throning the Fiesta? Not even slightly. The current situation is undoubtedly and unprecedently painful for anyone at the helm of a new car showroom, but if what I’ve been seeing in the world of classic cars – where auctioneers are still managing to sell the same 60-70 per cent of their cars, even when nobody can drive them first and sales are being conducted online – is true, then I reckon the new car market will, eventually bounce back too. All that appetite for new Audis, Nissan Qashqais and so on – it’s not dead. It’s just in the freezer, waiting for Boris to stick it in the microwave when he deems the time is right.

The fact that 658 of you were happy to fork out £43,000 on an all-electric executive saloon in the middle of a lockdown says it all. Britain’s best-selling new car, briefly, is a Tesla. You couldn’t make it up…

Normality returns! Mazda launches a special edition MX-5

EVERYTHING will go back to normal. I know this because just about the most normal thing in motoring has just happened; Mazda has launched a special edition MX-5.

Knowing that Mazda is on the verge of launching a special edition MX-5 is like predicting that your clock is about to tick or that Ant is probably going to pick Dec as his next co-presenter. It happens with such unremitting regularity that it probably isn’t all that special any more. Some, like the Tenth Anniversary back in 1999, are remembered for doing something interesting – like introducing a sixth gear for the car’s UK fans for the first time – and are, in car terms at least, quite collectible these days. Then there’s the BBR Turbo, which gave the MX-5’s earliest iterations a welcome dollop of forced induction, and the Le Mans, which has a magnificently daft paint job modelled – surprise, surprise – on Mazda’s 1991 Le Mans winner but was limited to just 24 examples in the UK. Apologies, George Orwell, but all are manufactured by robots in a Hiroshima factory equal, but some are more equal than others.

Others are just a succession of bright colours and vaguely evocative names.  Berkeley. California. Monaco. Indiana. The list goes on. There’s even, if you dial the levels of automotive anorak-ness up to 11, a website that chronicles each and every special edition  MX-5 – the point being that they’re not particularly special anymore. In the same way that all snowflakes (and I mean the cold ones, not the ones The Daily Express moans about) are individual.

So the MX-5 R Sport, then, probably isn’t all that special, even though it’s limited to just 150 examples across the UK – but I still like it. If I bought one I wouldn’t feel like I’m even remotely within some exclusive club, but I like the gunmetal grey alloy wheels and the way they set off the equally moody Polymetal Grey paint. Even the roof, if you do decide to stop having fun, is grey rather than black, and I think the burgundy leather seats brightening things up on the inside works a treat.

Of course, under the skin it’s still exactly the same as any other fourth-generation MX-5 – so you get the same rev-happy 1.5-litre engine, good for 130bhp, the same addictively snappy six-speed manual box, and scalpel-sharp ride and handling. You wouldn’t particularly want to alter something that already works brilliantly, but if you’re not fussed by having fifty shades of grey on your MX-5, you can save £3000 and get the standard car.

Or do what I’ve done – wait, and buy a secondhand one. I’m just glad that Mazda’s still at it – coronavirus can do all the damage it wants, but as long as there are special edition MX-5s there’s some semblance of normality.

CARL – the creepy-sounding future for electric cars

CARL is here to see you. He’s a slightly creepy-sounding robot, and he’s popped round to charge your car up.

Don’t worry, Champion readers, this isn’t a terrible pitch for a really bad episode of Black Mirror in which the protagonist develops an unhealthy relationship with an artificial form of intelligence. Nope, if anything it’s slightly more surreal. A Chinese company that’s hoping to crack the UK market has developed patents for an autonomous device that tracks your car down and then charges it up, so you don’t have to.

In the meantime it’s developed a line-up of all-electric off-roaders, the first of which, the U5, is available to order this month. It’s also following some of its compatriots, notably Lynck & Co, by refusing to have anything so resolutely old hat as dealerships. To buy one you have to do it all through your smartphone. They’ve also got a BMW X4-esque coupé crossover on the way; the jury’s out on whether it’ll be any good to drive, but it certainly looks the part.

So where does CARL – and that really is the robot’s name – step in? Well, the idea is that you fire up the Aiways app on your smartphone when your U5 is running low on juice, and he’ll find it, wherever it’s parked, and ‘fill’ it up with electricity. CARL uses GPS to find your pride and joy and can charge up the batteries to 80 per cent charge in 50 minutes. CARL might have a stupid name – apologies if you’re reading this and you’re called Carl, but any name sounds crass if you write it in ALL CAPS and apply it to a robot. He also looks like a cross between a food blender and a prop from a 1980s episode of Doctor Who, but he’s succeeded. He’s made me want to buy an Aiways U5.

I’d happily snap up a U5, just so I can leave it parked on Rannoch Moor on a bleak Sunday night. Perhaps I might indulge in a spot of creative parking at the top of the Honister Pass. If I’m feeling reallycruel, I might book a cross-Channel ferry, drive on, wait ‘til it’s halfway to Calais and then decide that my Aiways needs topping up. Forget charging in the busier bits of Britain – our charging infrastructure’s a lot better than it was a decade ago, and I’m fairly confident most of us could find a charger ourselves.

CARL, on the other hand, only really makes sense in the few areas where you can’t do that. He’s like Liam Neeson in Taken. He has a very particular set of skills. He will find you. And he will charge your car up.

Bring it on, Mr Creepy-Sounding Robot. But if you can’t charge my car up at the side of a single-track road in Snowdonia when it’s lashing it down, I want my money back.

The cool way to outrun a Lotus Carlton

NOT long ago – well, before the nation’s descent into binge-watching Netflix boxsets anyway – I clocked myself doing 177mph through the suburbs of Kent.

What’s more, I had absolutely zero control of the vehicle, and yes, your honour, it was completely legal. In fact, I even cracked open a can of Diet Coke and tucked into a bag of crisps, happy that in about two hours’ time I’d be milling around in Brussels on my way to a car show.

The point I’m making is that there are loads of ways of going really, really fast without going to too much effort, and without troubling the poor chaps whose job it is to drive up and down our motorways in a borrowed BMW X5. You are, for instance, doing 1000mph right now without even thinking about it, because that’s roughly, depending on where you are, the speed that the Earth rotates. Not feeling it? Not to worry; just dig out your old PS3, stick Gran Turismo 5 in and notch up three-figure speeds to your heart’s content. You could even, seeing as you’re not supposed to leave the house anyway, go onto YouTube and stick on Claude Lelouch’s superb 1976 short film C’était un rendez-vous, which stars a Ferrari 275 GTB being pressed into action around some deserted Parisian thoroughfares. If you’re a petrolhead and you haven’t seen it, you need to. Trust me!

But what you definitely don’t need to do is to trek out to the M58, take advantage of the fact there’s barely anyone on it, and then press your right foot all the way down, which a worrying amount of people seem to have been doing on the nation’s motorways lately. Over the Bank Holiday weekend a chap was stopped for tootling up the M1 at 151mph – there’s some debate over what the car was, with the consensus being that it was a tweaked BMW M140i, but the key thing is that number. I’ll say it slowly – one hundred and fifty one miles per hour. That’s quicker than any high speed train in the UK, with the exception of the Channel Tunnel one that I took the other week. It’s faster than the top speed of an E-type Jag, beyond what all but the fastest of today’s hot hatches can crack, and only 4mph of what most of today’s supersaloons are electronically limited to. Oh, and more than twice the UK’s legal speed limit.

The last thing I want to do is come across as some Daily Mail-reading killjoy, but I’d much, much rather spend my lockdown saving up to go on a proper trackday. In fact, I’d go even further; a couple of years ago I took my MX-5 to the Nürburgring in Germany, where I spent a morning racking up three-figure speeds down the long straights and getting in the way of people with 911 GT3s. That’s much more fun than driving in a straight line, very fast, down a boring bit of grey motorway and winding the police up. Surely if you can afford an M140i, you can afford a weekend away in Germany once this is all over?

That or just hop on the Eurostar to Brussels. Quicker than a Lotus Carlton, and you munch on a bag of crisps while you’re at it!

The Hyundai that looks like a Lamborghini

IT’S a mighty good thing that my bedroom wall has lots of sensible, framed pictures on it. Otherwise – and I know I’d get the mickey ripped right out of me for this one – I’d have to admit to Blu-tacking a brand-new Hyundai onto it.

Bedroom walls, if you’re about nine, are hugely important galleries, curating all that’s great and good in the car world – and they have a genuine impact on the real world too, because a generation of kids who had the Ferrari Testarossa and Porsche 911 Turbo on theirs are now all grown up, and pushing the prices up for these 1980s performance heroes. I remember a time, not that long ago, when the Testarossa was regarded as Maranello’s dodgier efforts, and you could get one for under £40,000. Not any more.

Mine, growing up in the Nineties, had the Ferrari F355 and the TVR Cerbera. I’ll even own up to sticking the, erm, Ford Puma on it, but it never, ever had a Hyundai on it, not even the original Coupé from 1995, which is far better-looking than most petrolheads will readily admit.

But if I were a nine-year-old in 2020, there’s a sporting chance that the new Prophecy might make it into the hallowed territory of today’s bedroom wall, alongside the Ferrari F8 Tributo and the McLaren Speedtail. It’s a four-door saloon that runs on electricity, but since when does Hyundai come up with a car that looks like a Lamborghini at the business end, a Mercedes CLS 55 AMG in the middle, and has a rump that looks curiously like that of a 911 Carrera RSR? The Korean carmaker says that it’s designed to make you think of cars from the 1930s, but I don’t think they’re fooling anyone – they’re clearly taking on Tesla, and nicking a few bits from old supercars while they’re at it.

The front end, at least, is fairly easy to explain; the new Prophecy has been penned by the same bloke who did the Lamborghini Murcielago, and it shows. It’s even braver on the inside too, where Hyundai’s decided that a steering wheel is far too old-hat and fitted a joystick instead,and trimmed the seats with tartan cloth that looks like it’s been nicked straight out an early Lotus Esprit.

You probably won’t have even needed to read this far to work out that this isn’t going to replace the i30 Fastback any time soon; it’s a concept car, a one-off flight of fancy that, with no Geneva Motorshow to head to anymore, has only just been unveiled properly. The chances of it going into production are about as likely as Sir Alan Sugar being named as the next James Bond, but it’s relevant because some of its more out-there looks might make it onto Hyundai dealer forecourts in a couple of years’ time.

Oh, and it because it reminds nine-year-olds that you have to be Ferrari or Bugatti to make a car that looks really cool. Well, I’d have it on my bedroom wall, anyway…

How carmakers are helping to beat coronavirus

QUICK game of word association, to keep you occupied while you’re at home. MG – what does it make you think of?

Chances are it’s the ‘B that clogs up your grey matter first – it is, after all, the best-selling sports car Britain ever made and a firm fixture of every motoring show from Ormskirk to the Outer Hebrides. Britt Ekland drove one for about three seconds in The Man With The Golden Gun. And then there were those fantastically tongue-in-cheek ads. The ones that boasted that your mother wouldn’t like it.

Perhaps, if you grew up when Laura Branigan’s Gloria was a nightclub staple, MG means hotted-up Metros and Maestro Turbos. Then again, it could be dancing around on wet country lanes in a TD Midget, popping the roof down in an MGF or – if you’re really, really young – it could mean a company flogging electric Quashqai rivals dreamt up in China.

But it probably doesn’t mean trucks.

That’s exactly what, you might be surprised to learn, the sports car gurus from Abingdon specialised in for much of the Second World War. They made bits for Lancaster bombers, too. They weren’t the only ones; Rover worked on jet engines, Vauxhall swapped cars for tanks and Nuffield – owners of Morris – made Spitfire fighter planes in the very factory that Jaguar Land Rover uses to this day. The might of the car industry flexing its muscles for a common cause.

So in these topsy-turvy times, when going to car shows is a no-no and you’ve watched your eighteenth Top Gear rerun of the week, I’m genuinely delighted to see the great and good of the car world turning their efforts to giving coronavirus the finger. They might not be making many cars right now, so they’re busy beating the virus instead.

McLaren, for instance, is using its F1 knowhow to come up with medical ventilators. Ford is using its facilities – and, I gather, bits from its F-150 pick-up truck – to rustle up tech that can help stem the outbreak in America. Vauxhall, Honda and Toyota are all stepping in, too, and Rolls-Royce is ramping up its efforts to help. It is genuinely inspiring – and unprecedented in modern times – that manufacturing giants who would normally be fierce rivals on four wheels have teamed up to help save lives.

I certainly hope none of you have to deal directly with this nasty, invisible enemy that doesn’t care whether you’re the Queen or someone who listens to Queen, but if you do it’s nice to think that it might be a McLaren that’s deployed to help. I’ll have mine with extra carbon fibre, please.

A Nissan that sends you to sleep? Sign me up

NORMALLY it’s not a good thing if a vehicle is so routinely monotonous that it sends you to sleep – but Nissan’s latest LEAF is actively encouraging it.

Parents – this one’s for you, particularly if you’ve ever resorted to strapping a young child into a Government-approved safety seat, gently clicked the driver’s door shut behind you (no slamming, unless you want to make things worse), and gone on what the chaps at the Japanese carmaker call ‘dream driving’. Nope, it’s not the sort of dream drive I’d have in mind – that involves a Ferrari F8 Tributo, a deserted Alpine switchback and a mountain-top restaurant at the other end – but those drives you do for no other reason than to lull a baby or toddler to sleep. You see, we all though it was the motion of being in a car that proved so relaxing but, according to Nissan’s scientists, it’s the rhythmic patter of the internal combustion engine that does the trick.

All of which proves a bit tricky if you’re an up ‘n’ coming parent doing the upbringing in a world that’s fast developing an electric car addiction. Skoda, which has just launched a new all-electric car named after Enya (no, really), reckons a quarter of the cars it sells will be all-electric in just four years’ time – quite a jump when you consider that at the moment these zero-emissions offerings account for a rather more pitiful three per cent of the UK new car market. Vauxhall is launching its new Corsa in electric guise first, to get us all used to the idea, and Kia’s about to launch its new Sorrento in Greenpeace-friendly form. Even Maserati’s getting in on the act; where the old Granturismo had a Ferrari-derived V8, apparently the new one will be a sort of tarmac-ripping Italian answer to Tesla. All very promising – but not exactly helpful if you’re trying to nudge your little one into nodding off.

So what Nissan’s done is teamed up with some sleep coaches – now that’s a job that’ll leave you yawning – and come up with a clever system that’ll essentially play some automotive lullabies instead. Sounds, it reckons, that’ll mimic the repetitive tones of a quiet petrol engine, but without upsetting the climate change lobby. So, everybody wins.

Obviously, this is a very clever idea and one that’ll win it loads of new mates on Mumsnet – but I reckon it can go even further. If Nissan makes equally rapid progress with nailing autonomous driving than I’d definitely be up for the idea of a grown-up version that plays BBC Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast on a loop; the car would be doing all the hard work while I’m drifting off, listening to how there are warnings of gales in Forties and Cromarty and how the general synopsis is good, occasionally poor. I’d much prefer that to having to tackle the M58 at 3am.

Better still, I can see Skoda being able to nick the idea for an equally effective idea that ties in brilliantly with its latest model – an all-electric SUV that plays Enya’s Only Time on repeat, ad nauseum, every time you set off on a night drive.

Forget lullabies – I reckon Nissan’s about to put Caledonian Sleeper out of business. Chaps, come up with a hot chocolate maker in the centre console and a compartment to store my pyjamas, and I reckon you’ve cracked it!

Gordon Murray’s MOTIV – a brilliantly engineered answer to a question I’m still not sure about

YOU sit up and notice when the man behind the McLaren F1 and Mercedes SLR rustles up a new set of wheels. Especially when all the ingredients – on the face of it, at least – sound indisputably spot on to a set of a petrolhead ears.

Gordon Murray’s latest creation weighs in at less than 450kg, making it lighter than a Caterham Seven R500 or an Ariel Atom. You clamber into it after opening an SLR-esque ‘gullwing’ door that opens upwards, and there’s just one, centrally-mounted seat, BAC Mono-style. The body panels are composite, and underneath the structure’s ultra-lightweight, high strength extruded aluminium. It has everything going for it to be a brilliant new supercar – but the MOTIV emphatically isn’t one.

In fact, it’s a beautifully engineered answer to a question I’m still scratching my head over.

The MOTIV, officially launched later this week at a show in London, might look like one of those automated pod things that darts around the car park at Heathrow Terminal Five but it in fact is Gordon’s solution for city slickers who are currently clogging up Liverpool and Manchester with Fiestas and Astras that have only ever seem to have one person on board at any time. It’s fully autonomous, can crack 40mph on a cruise and can recharge its 20kw electric motor to 80 per cent of its capacity in just 40 minutes. It’s also narrower than a Smart Fortwo – but if you send it off on its own on cargo delivery duties, it’s got as much luggage space as an Audi A3 with the back seats folded down. All while meeting car safety standards that – because it’s officially a quadricycle, on account of weighing about as much as a helium-filled supermodel – it doesn’t legally have to.

I don’t even mind the fact that it’s deliberately been designed to look “non-threatening” (their words, not mine), because it’s got weird echoes of 1950s bubble cars, which did exactly the same job but with tiny, two-stroke engines instead.

Nope, the only thing I’m still trying to get my head around is how it’s been designed so explicitly with big cities in mind. I can count the times I’ve driven in Central London on the digits of a single hand because there’s no reason why you’d want to; you can go absolutely everywhere on buses and the Tube. Equally, there are very few places in Liverpool that I can’t get to without using a Merseyrail train or the bus. So, I’m not sure why I’d hop into a MOTIV instead.

The Catch 22 is that in order to benefit from the MOTIV you’ll either be somewhere where a train/bus/tram already does the job or you’ll need to park up somewhere in a much bigger car, even if it is a Boris-friendly all-electric one, and switch vehicles. As for anywhere else, would you want to tackle the trip in something with no room for your mates and runs out of puff at forty? Exactly.

It’s all the finest, freshest ingredients, cooked to perfection by Marco Pierre White and served in an exquisite, candle-lit, five star restaurant – it’d just be nice if you could remember what you’d ordered.

Why the Suzuki Jimny deserves a stay of execution

CANCEL the lilies and chuck your funeral clobber back in the wardrobe. The Suzuki Jimny, contrary to what you might have read, is alive and well.

Sort of. Over the past week or so there have been rumours suggesting that Britain’s favourite bitesize off-roader was about to face the chop, but since then Suzuki’s UK division has itself decided to try and quash what it calls “media speculation”, and insists that the plucky little mudplugger is still very much part of its range. Yet you can’t help but worry for the Jimny’s chances when, in exactly the same statement, it says that it’ll only be on sale in “very limited numbers” and that, if you’ve ordered one, it’ll “make every effort” to make sure you actually get a small, rather square-shaped 4×4 on your driveway.

So how has a funky, go-anywhere companion that offers Land Rover-bating talent in the rough stuff for a fraction of the price – and been picked up an enviable haul of gongs from the motoring mags in the process – been put on life support? It’s all to do with emissions, and specifically, the average amount of carbon dioxide across an entire carmaker’s range.

The Jimny has a relatively inoffensive 1.5-litre petrol engine, but unlike, say, Nissan with its LEAF or Vauxhall with its latest Corsa-e, there aren’t yet any zero-emissions Suzuki offerings to offset a range entirely dependent on petrol engines. Sure, it’s fitting the Swift with hybrid technology in the spring, but that’s a fairly small shuffle compared to the giant leaps European legislation is now demanding, and it’s the same thinking that’s making city cars – where the benefits of pricey electric tech get harder and harder to square up – increasingly uneconomic to develop.

All of which leaves the Jimny on a bit of a sticky wicket, which is a shame because it’s a cracking little car. Sure, it might be equipped with a distinctly old-fashioned ladder frame chassis and not be the most inspiring thing through the corners, but that’s precisely why it’s won so many people over; in a world full of bland, me-too crossovers this is a proper small off-roader. It’s got short overhangs, four-wheel-drive a low-range transfer gearbox to help you out in a boggy field, and a simple, no-nonsense interior that won’t be ruined the first time it’s introduced to a muddy set of walking boots. It’s a Jeep Gladiator for people with pound shop budgets. So it doesn’t have a pricey all-electric option. So what?

I reckon the long-term solution is for Suzuki to team up with its latest minority shareholder – a small up ‘n’ coming carmaker called Toyota, who you might have heard of – and get some tried and trusted electric cars onto the market sooner rather than later. It might even be worth doing an all-electric Jimny, as reportedly the factory back in Japan’s working at full pelt to try and meet all the orders.

Put it this way; the old Jimny survived 20 years in Suzuki’s showrooms because so many people loved it, and that car’s predecessor managed another 16 years before that. It’d be a crying shame if the current one’s caught out after just two.

Lease a brand new car? That’s far too sensible

THE price of being sensible starts at £114 a month.

That’s roughly what you’ll pay at the moment for a lease deal on an entry-level Kia Picanto, for which you’ll get five doors, a delightfully revvy one-litre engine, a warranty that might as well outlast the universe and endless, unrelenting reliability. Or you could do what I do, and like old cars too much.

Occasionally this works a treat, because it means that for a fraction of the £10,195 a showroom fresh Picanto costs you can have a whole fleet of cars that are faster, roomier and far more likely to attract knowing nods at car shows. It also means that you’re doing your bit to preserve the nation’s heritage, and you’re saving the world’s resources by sparing a carmaker the bother of building a brand new one from scratch.

But it also means you’re worryingly likely to end up in the conumdrum I did the other day, when the 21-year-old Toyota Avensis that I’d taken to a car show ended up above a small, rainbow-coloured lake when it decided to dump virtually all of its 10w/40 through a hairline crack in a split pipe running to its oil cooler. One AA get-you-home repair later and it’s now facing a £400-plus bill to nurse it back to health – a bit depressing, when the car itself only cost a grand.

Normally I’d just leave it at that and resort to the Volkswagen Polo MkII that I’ve been running around in over the last few months. It’s even older, marking its 28th birthday this year, but with sweet handling, plenty of visibility and the ability to suckle 48 miles out of a gallon I’d happily recommend it as a commuting charity. Except that it’s off the road too, at another garage, because it’s awaiting a new fuel tank.

Not to worry. I can just drop the roof down on my Mazda MX-5, which is still one of the most entertaining and beautifully balanced cars you can pick up for under £1500 and – crucially – is most definitely not broken. It works a treat, but the problem with owning multiple cars is that invariable you have MoTs creeping up on you on multiple occasions throughout the year, and the Mazda’s is due next Wednesday. So it might be working now, but chances are it won’t be in a few days’ time.

All of which leaves the Reliant Scimitar, which is working just fine but normally struggles to top 25 to the gallon on account of its three-litre Ford V6 – so spot on for sunny drives in the countryside, but not exactly ideal for daily commuting. So, for someone who normally has four cars at this disposal, I’ve ended up doing the drive to work in a borrowed, J-registered Mitsubishi Galant.

Do I mind? Not even slightly, because I love all of these old cars far more than I ever could an entry-level Kia. It’s just not remotely sensible, that’s all.