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 Range Rover SV Coupe proves that less is more when it comes to luxury cars

The SV Coupe revisits the idea of the original two-door Range Rover from the 1970s

FORGET everything you’ve ever learned about quality over quantity for a moment. When you wade into the world of the fabulously wealthy, less is usually a lot more.

The price you’d pay for a truly palatial pad in Kensington, Liverpool, for instance, would barely get you a one-bed flat in its London namesake. A main course at an upmarket restaurant in Marylebone or Mayfair costs more than I’d normally spend on a couple’s three-course night out in this part of the world. And don’t get me started on £6 pints.

It’s the same with cars too, as anyone who’s ever ordered a Porsche GT3 and traded rear seats for roll cages and stereos for stripped-back carbonfibre will know.

Which is why I have to admire Land Rover for unveiling its new, ultra-luxury spinoff of the Range Rover at the Geneva Motor Show last week. There’s lots of “contemporary design” and “up-to-the-minute technology” breaking up the slabs of wood and acres of leather you’d expect on the inside, and they are only building 999 of them, but what you can’t fail to notice is that for your £240,000 asking price you get two fewer doors. Automotive proof that less really is more in the world of cars, too.

What it does prove, however, is that if the money’s there then it’s not impossible to convert a five-door car into a three-door one; which makes me wonder why three-door cars much further down the pecking order are all being quietly killed off. The RenaultSport Clio – a car you’d expect to arrive sans rear doors, because that way the body’s stiffer – is now only available in five-door form, and it’s the same story with the Ford Focus, and the Honda Civic. Word has it that the three-door version of Audi’s A3 is being pensioned off, too. Which is a real shame, because for all the awkward fumbling you have with sliding seats forward and climbing through narrow gaps there is a youthful sense of fun about three-door hatches, and it’s sad to see it slowly disappearing.

The Peugeot 205 GTI just wouldn’t have had the same frisson of mischief had it been equipped with five doors, and nor would Renault’s Clio Williams or Citroen’s AX GT. They all had five-door cousins, of course, but it was worth eschewing the practicality for a stiffer bodyshell and cleaner looks. Surely if the argument works for the Range Rover all these years later – especially being positioned as a luxury spinoff – it’ll work for the next Ford Focus RS or Honda Civic Type-R, too?

It’s exactly the sort of petrolhead argument I’m hoping to win next time I visit the pub. Anyone got six quid they can lend me?


Don’t panic about snow – learn to drive on it!

More should be done to prepare motorists for coping with snowy conditions

THIS TIME last week there was a joke doing the rounds in the bars of Helsinki about our recent spate of bracing weather.

The English called the weather front, on account of it sweeping across the North Sea straight from the chillier bits of Russia, The Beast From The East. The Dutch dubbed it The Siberian Bear. Even the Swedes got a bit over-excited and labelled it The Snow Cannon. But the Finns called it… Wednesday.
It’s a bit of a harsh observation, but when it comes from a country that’s produced seven world rally champions there is an element of truth in it. We Brits just aren’t too hot at coping with extreme cold.
I can understand the schools closing for the day and the train operators finding things a bit tricky – but all those warnings about not travelling unless it’s absolutely necessary rang a bit hollow. Okay, so horsepower hedonists like me who venture out simply because it’s fun had to hang fire on getting their MX-5s and M3s out for a few days, but everyone else who’s vaguely normal only ever travels because it’s necessary. You might be lucky enough to work from home or to have a boss nice enough to deem your drive in non-essential, but for the rest of us we’re on the roads not to be annoying, but because we have to be.
Which is why there really ought to be more emphasis on learning what to do when you have to go out in the snow, so you don’t have to stay in and listen to people on the news telling you how treacherous it is out there. If you woke up to a genuine ten-foot high snowdrift than fair enough, but you’d be surprised at how far you can get on the white stuff in a car that isn’t a Land Rover Discovery if you drive sensibly. Even on quiet roads that hadn’t been gritted my 20-year-old Toyota Avensis managed to cope admirably, and one pal of mine managed to overcome just about everything in a Fiat Cinquecento. Neither had chunky winter tyres or fancy traction control systems – but they did have decent rubber, a lack of weight and some careful driving in their favour.
But far too few drivers I encountered during Snowmageddon seemed completely clueless about what to do when you get that horrible moment when the steering goes light on an icy patch or what to do when the back end snaps out of line on a slippery bit of snow. I’m not suggesting that we’re sent on weekend breaks to Finland to learn how to drive a Mitsubishi Evo VIII rally car on a frozen lake to sharpen up our skills (although I’d be more than happy to volunteer!), but I’m sure that equipped with some snow-driving knowledge the recent conditions wouldn’t have been as ominous.
Let’s stop panicking about the snow and learn to drive on it instead. Then the Finns might stop taking the mickey out of us…

The big surprise about driving a massive van

The extended Vauxhall Movano David used dwarfs other vans

PLEASE don’t tell me what Chris Harris has been powersliding lately. Or what car that bloke from Friends has been bigging up. The world’s biggest car show is back on our screens – but I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet.

When Top Gear returned to the nation’s living rooms last Sunday night I’d only just settled into mine after moving house, which means that as I write any means of watching it was still sealed neatly away in cardboard boxes. It’s funny how relocating forces you to live on the bare basics. No seeing The Stig drifting BMW M3s for me, then.

But what I did get to do was add another motoring superlative to my repertoire during the house move, because the massively extended Vauxhall Movano I used for the job is easily the biggest vehicle I’ve ever been given the keys to.

There doesn’t seem to be an official term for it but the rental firm that entrusted it to me refers to it as a Maxi load, although it’s about as far from the old British Leyland hatchback as Donald Trump is from a sensibly written tweet. It’s a bit bigger, and considerably longer, than a normal Luton van, which means that once you get behind the three seats you have a load area that’s bigger than a typical student flat.

As a result its road presence is vast. Yet it’s all uncannily normal to drive.

Once you get used to what feels like a precariously high driving position – from the helm of a Maxi load you’re looking down on Range Rovers and workmen in Ford Transits – it feels like you could be driving the latest Astra. The steering’s a little vague but it’s light and does everything you ask of it, the six-speed manual does a fine job of keeping the 2.3-litre turbodiesel in check and it’ll tootle along at 60mph while barely breaking a 2000rpm sweat. The fact it can do all this while conveying an entire three-bedroom house’s contents and not creak at the seams, I reckon, is truly remarkable.

The only thing you’ve got to watch out for is just how generous its proportions are; I thought it’d be the width that’d catch me out but in fact it’s the lengthy stroll between the front and rear axles that kept me on my toes throughout my weekend with it. But once you get used to thing it’s surprising how something so enormous can feel so reassuringly normal.

I don’t think the Movano Maxi load will ever earn itself a mention on Top Gear, but in its own unapologetically useful way it’s just as impressive.


Fast Fords at bargain prices – hot hatches that don’t cost a fortune

Ford is pulling the plug on its Focus RS after just two years

IF YOU crane your neck a little and listen carefully you might just be able to hear the sobbing from pubs and supermarket car parks across the land. The Focus RS is about to read its last rites.

Anyone who read last week’s Champion might recall me lamenting the lack of new hot hatches but Ford’s now managed to go one better by culling the fastest of its current five-doors. It’ll be making 50 Heritage Edition-badged cars, and in true Max Power tradition they’ll all be finished in a retina-scorching shade of orange. Yours for £39,895, seeing as you’re asking.

It’s also a fair bet that Fast Ford fetishists are going to spend the next 30 years fighting over the good ones, just as they did with the Escort Mexico, the RS Turbo and the RS Cosworth. In fact, I’ve spent so long writing about old cars with Blue Ovals on their bonnets picking up hair-rising prices at auction that I was beginning to wonder if there are any cheap ones left.

So I went window shopping – with a strict budget of just a tenth of what a Focus RS Heritage Edition costs. I’m delighted to report that you can still pick up blue oval-badged performance cars at blue collar prices.

The chief contender for this sort of money is the Focus ST – in fact, for a few quid over the budget I found one that’d been chipped and is knocking out 260bhp, which is a lot of motoring mischief for under four grand. If it were my money I’d go for its smaller Fiesta ST sibling, which might only serve up 150bhp but the cars out there seem to have lower mileages and be in better condition. Both seem to have fallen into that awkward gap in petrolhead-dom where they’re a bit too old hat to register with today’s go-faster motorists, but they’re too youthful and common in number to end up on the radar of classic car fans. Which is exactly the time to snap the good ones up.

It’s also worth giving the Mondeo ST-220 an honourable mention too, because it really is an astonishingly accomplished ground coverer for the money. It was cruelly snubbed by far too many buyers for the BMW 3-Series when it was new, but nowadays you can get 224bhp, room for five adults, bags of boot space and some finely-honed cornering sparkle in the same package for well under our £4k budget. Job done.

Unless of course, you want a proper Fast Ford of the RS-badged variety, that is. In which case I’ll point you in the direction of the Escort RS2000 of the Nineties – they’re few far and between, but keep looking and you can still get them at sensible prices.

You know you want to. Just don’t paint it orange…


The only way is Up – if you’re looking for a small hot hatch

The Up GTI is the smallest hot hatch Volkswagen makes

IT’S THE sort of late landing an Irish budget airline would be proud of. There’s arriving fashionably late – and then there’s the Volkswagen Up GTI.

Connoisseurs of pint-sized and spiced-up hatchbacks might have already read that as of this week the smallest of Wolfsburg GTI-badged wonders has just gone on sale across the UK. You might have also read in the motoring mags about how it copes tremendously with tight turns, and seen James May making excitable squawking noises while driving it on The Grand Tour. But the fact remains that Volkswagen first started promising us a spruced-up version of the teeny-tiny up way back in 2013, at a time when I was actually using a bog-standard Up as a company car.

I can only assume that Volkswagen was being considerate by teasing us with it in concept car form – albeit missing that elusive third letter and badged as just the GT then – so it could give press-on drivers like me the chance to save up for it. Which is a good thing, because even in the poverty spec guise I reckon the Up’s the best car VW currently makes (especially now that the Scirocco has been pensioned off).

But all those years of teasing car nuts with the idea of an Up with added oomph has given the rest of the motoring world time to catch up. For a few hundred pounds less, for instance, you can have the Renault Twingo GT, which follows roughly the same formula but sticks the engine behind the rear seats and spits all the power out through the rear wheels. So basically it’s a Porsche 911 that’s more practical and easier to park. There’s also the Smart ForFour Brabus, which uses the same engine as the Twingo in a much heavier package and slaps on a £20k price tag for the privilege. Erm, and that’s about it.

Sure, there’s a new Suzuki Swift Sport on the way too but it’s astonishing that there’s no Sport spinoff of Ford’s Ka+ and that Vauxhall’s VXR boffins haven’t got their hands on an Adam. There’s no GTI twist on Peugeot’s 108 or a VTS variant of its sister car, the Citroen C1. Even VW hasn’t extended the GTI fun factor to the Up’s extended cousins – why isn’t SEAT doing a Mii Cupra, or Skoda Citigo vRS?

Hot hatches inject a sparkle of excitement into the all-too-often anodyne world of front-wheel-drive supermarket companions, and the smaller and lighter they start off the more fun and immediate they end up being in GTI form.

Come on carmakers, let’s have some more! Until then the only way is Up, even if it is five years late. Or to a Twingo GT, if you’re being awkward.


Lister is back to doing what it does best – OTT Jaguars

The Lister Thunder is essentially a heavily reworked Jaguar F-Type

IF YOU’RE under the age of fifty then chances are that Lister is the protagonist of spacefaring sitcom Red Dwarf. So that means copious amounts of curry, brilliant putdowns and laundry baskets ignored for so long that they’ve developed their own ecosystems.

But if you grew up in the era of Sir Stirling Moss giving Johnny Foreigner a thoroughly good drubbing on the world’s race circuits and grainy mono newsreels, then Lister was a force to be reckoned with in sports car racing. It dominated the Sports Car Club of America’s national championships in 1958 and 1959, for instance, but unless you’ve been to the Goodwood Revival lately I’d understand if you failed to bat an eyelid.

But there is another side to Lister’s history – one which, I’m delighted to say, is about to make a comeback. The one which involves giving Jaguars monstrously powerful engines and wonderfully unsubtle bodykits.

Nearly 20 years ago I was actually lucky to visit Lister’s old factory and was completely won over by  the line of black Jaguar XJSs that’d been kitted out with 7.0-litre V12s and huge spoilers. Its star offering at the time was the faintly ludicrous Storm, a GT racer that battled Ferrari F40s and McLaren F1s for race victory but cost so much in roadgoing form that the company made a whopping four for very rich (and very brave) petrolheads.

You’d think the Storm would’ve put Lister off making flashy new cars – for the last few years it’s been building recreations of its 1950s classics instead – but now it’s giving it another go by cranking the Jaguar F-Type’s performance up to cartoonish levels. Not only has it given the svelte two-seater the much cooler Lister Thunder moniker, but it’s also treated it to plenty of custom-made carbonfibre bits, a cabin retrimmed in leather even more expensive than the stuff Jaguar uses, and the supercharged V8’s been tweaked and fiddled with to the point that it now pumps out 666bhp. So obviously the performance is going to be demonic.

What that means is that for your £139,950 you get an F-Type that’ll keep up with a Ferrari 488 to 60mph and go on to more than 200mph – but what it excites me is that it finally gives the F-type the edge that it’s always lacked, even in R form. The Thunder’s being limited to 99 cars, but the good news is that if your wallet’s hefty enough Lister will fit all of its really aggressive add-ons to your F-type anyway.

The Thunder’s a bit like Red Dwarf  – I’m fully aware that it’s a very acquired taste and that half of my mates hate it, but I’m completely hooked. It must be a Lister thing.


Smart motorways aren’t so smart if you get a puncture

Changing a tyre is frustrating at the best of times - but it could even be dangerous on a motorway roadwork

IT’S AMAZING how much motoring tech has come on in the past decade or so – but I’m not entirely convinced it’s always a good thing. Particularly when a little orange light starts to play tricks on you.

The nifty little illumination in question is a dashboard warning light VW fits to its more recent offerings – and many an Audi, SEAT and Skoda, for that matter – that lets you know its on-board tyre pressure sensor thinks you’re about to encounter a puncture. Having had a Golf give me advance notice of a flat tyre on an outing last year I know that it works tremendously well – except when it doesn’t, because the person who borrowed the car before you admitted to kerbing an alloy a few hours earlier.

In the end it turned out said colleague’s parking ineptitude had knocked the sensor out of sync, everything was fine and I was able to get off scot-free for the rest of my 200-mile journey, but it’s where the light came on that really unnerved me. Anyone who regularly ventures down the M6 will know there’s a stretch just south of Thelwall Viaduct that’s being upgraded into a smart motorway, and it feels like it goes on forever.

It’s frustrating enough when you’re forced to sit at fifty while all the lorries thunder past obliviously, but when you’re suddenly alerted to the possibility of an imminent puncture and realise there are still several miles of roadworks before you can pull over safely that you start to get worried. Especially when you remember the car you’re in isn’t even fitted with a space saver. The idea of tackling a dead tyre on an open motorway with only a can of gunk to help is mildly terrifying.

My fear of breaking down on one of these not-so-smart motorways isn’t unjustified, either; only last week a family gave permission for a rather harrowing 999 call which captures the moment their stricken people carrier was punted up the backside by an HGV to be made public. Properly managed motorways can cope with using the hard shoulder as a fourth lane, but it’s the horribly narrow ones that are still being built that worry me. There were proposals a while ago to limit these stretches to a more palatable two miles long – rather than the 15 or so the longer ones are now – but it seems to have quietly disappeared under the hazy fug of Whitehall bureaucracy.

I’ve always hated the roadworks leading up to smart motorways because they’re the very opposite; with their average 50mph limits that people routinely ignore, constructions sites that are hardly ever frequented and unbearable length they’re anything but clever. But – if that 999 call is anything to go by – they could even be dangerous. Fingers crossed I don’t get a real puncture, then…


The best way to sort out all those aftermarket Land Rover Defenders? Reintroduce the real one, of course

Land Rover is only making 150 of its Works V8 Defenders

SO FAR Theresa May’s yet to make any announcement banning future episodes of Love Island being broadcast for good. Oasis are yet to get back together, and Britain’s best brewers still haven’t worked out how to create beer that helps you lose weight.

But very occasionally things you keep your fingers crossed for do actually happen. Regular readers might recall that in these very pages about six months ago I openly wished for Land Rover to bring the Defender back, if only so it could give all the aftermarket customisers currently ruining the old ones a well-deserved drubbing.

Amazingly, they’ve only gone and done it.

The Defender Works V8, to give it its official title, is not Britain’s biggest carmaker admitting it got it wrong all along and begrudgingly putting the nation’s most hardcore off-roader back into production. It’s being tackled by Jaguar Land Rover’s classic car division, but nor is it one of their beautifully executed revivals of its greatest hits, like the Jaguar E-types or the two-door Range Rovers it’s put together in recent years. This is Land Rover playing the aftermarket boys at their own game, by taking old ones, and imagining how much cooler they’d be with big alloys, a noisy V8 and leather-lining trimmings. And then making it happen.

As a result it’s rather more expensive than the regular Defenders ever were – £150,000, since you’re asking – but it does churn out 400bhp, so it can hit sixty in 5.6 seconds AND go mountain climbing afterwards. Admittedly, you’d be a bit cheesed off if you bought one of the last-of-the-line Defenders two years ago, but Land Rover says that it’s only because it’s celebrating its 70th birthday this year. Honest. They won’t make any more Defenders after that. Promise!

As someone who spent most of their childhood in Land Rover’s V8 offerings I’m more than happy for them to have another crack at it – and while I reckon it’s a lovely birthday gesture it achieves what I suspect was Land Rover’s aim all along, because it looks so much better thought-out than all the dreadful Pimp My Defender offerings doing the rounds at the moment. For all its blacked out alloys and chromed door handles the Works V8 looks like it could still fit in at a farmers’ market in deepest Shropshire.

Obviously my next wish is for roughly £150,000 to appear in my bank account. Fingers crossed, and all that…


Toyota reckons the future of driving is a box on wheels – and that’s a good thing

The Toyota e-Pallette is quite literally a box on wheels - and a possible vision of our motoring future

TOYOTA seems to have forgotten that it’s a carmaker. Or at least that’s the impression you’d be entirely right for getting if its latest offering is anything to go by.

Just when I was readying myself to find out what it’ll be unveiling at this week’s Detroit Motor Show – a successor to the Supra, perhaps, or a long overdue rework of the C-HR’s rear end – it turns out that it’s gone to the Consumer Electronics Show instead, which is a sort of American tech-fest where everyone excitedly looks at laptops and smartphones.

Obviously it couldn’t unveil a car because that’s old hat, 20th century tech – a box on wheels, if you like. So the world’s biggest automotive giant decided to unveil just that. A box on wheels. And Toyota will thank me for calling it that.

The e-Pallette might look like something you’d attack with an Allan key after a weekend visit to IKEA but that’s exactly the point; it’s meant to be empty, and already there are various big names who are touting this autonomous cube as ideal tools for their business. Amazon likes it because it can be used as an autonomous delivery drone, and Pizza Hut reckon you could fill it up with chefs and ovens and dispatch it to wherever there’s a party packed with peckish students. Uber reckon it’ll take off because you can pack it with people (and not have to pay a driver to take them anywhere), and if you stretch the wheelbase it can even perform the sort of work long-distance lorry drivers are paid to do.

But whether I sign up as a fan depends entirely on whether it can fitted with a towbar, should it ever make production. Toyota has touted the idea of the e-Pallette being used as a hotel room on wheels too, but I’d be much more interested in sticking my MGB GT on a trailer, hitching it to the back and then using it as a sort of autonomous motorhome that transports me and my wheels on petrolhead holidays.

I’d love the idea of taking my pride and joy to, say, the Scottish Highlands without having to spend the first day of my holiday resting because driving up there in a 45-year-old sports car is so tiring. Or opening the door of my autonomously-driven luxury suite to discover I’m in the Alps or some sun-drenched bit of Spain or Italy. I love driving, but I’m sure even the most ardent petrolhead would happily let a machine take care of the M6 on a congested Friday night.

Toyota might actually be onto something with a car that’s a glorified box on wheels. The challenge now is to make sure we’re still allowed to drive all those wonderful cars that aren’t.


RoboRace needs one thing – some human competition

Roborace is a new series for autonomous racing cars - no drivers required!

UNLESS you were fed oversteer with your alphabetti spaghetti from an early age it’s very hard to make it as a professional racing driver.

There are exceptions to the rule but generally to make the grade in top flight motor sport you need to have a sizeable amount of raw talent, a proven track record of working your way up through increasingly scary single-seaters, total fearlessness about losing it on a slippery right-hander and a considerable amount of cash – and even then you might get a politely worded letter of rejection from Sauber.

But it’s going to be even harder with the latest racing series that’s being launched, because it’s so tech-savvy that it dispenses with those pesky human drivers entirely.

I suppose RoboRace was inevitable in an age where you can do your shopping by drone and Donald Trump is forever contemplating ordering a nuclear launch from one of his golf courses. The series has a very cool name and vehicles that can crack 200mph but there won’t be any split-second decisions on whether to take the racing line through chicanes.  It’s not even a remote control affair; all the racing will be done on engineers’ laptops beforehand, programming the cars to strut their stuff autonomously.

The tech itself is a smart move. Back in the 1950s Jaguar made a big deal about its Le Mans-proven disc brakes filtering down to its XK150s and Mk2s and it’s the same story here; if the future of driving really is autonomous, then surely having it honed in the white heat of motor sport is a good idea? I know the Government’s very keen on self-driving cars, but there are still all sorts of logistical headaches to clear up, and sorting it on a race track is safer (and more fun) than doing it on the M57.

But what I’d like to see isn’t a load of autonomous cars racing each other; it’s man versus machine, which is surely what all motor sport is about in the first place. Who wants to see a load of glorified laptops dancing around one another when they can watch one robo-racer set a time around a circuit or up a hillclimb, and then see if any of their human-operated counterparts can beat it?

I bet most kids in a Honda Type-R reckon they could kick a robot’s arse at a track day – and in doing so, they’ll be helping to improve the future of driving for the rest of us. Bring it on.