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SEAT’s safety-conscious Leon – Guardian Angel or gadget overkill?

SEAT is now displaying its new Leon safety car at motor shows

A SEAT Toledo, a sun-kissed dual carriageway and a few generous dollops of over-confidence are all you need. Forget track days; if you want to experience some on-the-edge motoring just hop into a taxi at Barcelona Airport.

Every time I’ve ever taken the journey it’s been exciting and terrifying in equal measure, because the chap behind the wheel drives like a stunt double from one of the Bourne movies. There’s tailgating, brave overtakes, questionable undertakes and last minute manouveres that’d make an F1 driver wince. I’m never sure whether to give the taxi firm’s number to the police or to Red Bull’s talent spotters.

Yet it’s obvious that someone at SEAT’s headquarters – based just up the road from Barcelona, of course – has partaken in a few of these pulse-raising outings too. Because it’s just come up with a car that on the face of it aspires to make all of us safer, but is surely engineered entirely with Mediterranean taxi drivers in mind.

On the outset its new experimental car is ostensibly a Leon hatchback but it has no fewer than 19 safety systems on-hand to make sure you don’t bin it into the central reservation, which when used in conjunction become what SEAT calls its Guardian Angel mode.

Deep breath. It includes a built-in breathalyser that won’t let you start the car if it detects any hints of John Smiths or hears you bigging up some bloke you met two hours earlier as your new best mate; an eye sensor that tracks your peepers to make sure you aren’t about to nod off; a voice assistant that gives you a patronising pep talk if you’re doing more than thirty, and a system that lets your mum set the speed limit remotely when you’re popping to the shops in it. At least that way you can’t be grounded for misbehaving in it. Oh, and of course there are black boxes monitoring your every move.

Obviously if all 19 of these high-tech helping hands do make into every taxi in the whole of Catalunya then I’ll be able to depart the airport a bit more confident that I’ll make it into Barcelona intact, but I worry if SEAT genuinely thinks this is the future of driving. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for safer driving, but festoon a car with this much mumsy gadgetry and I worry the impression it’ll give is that you needn’t bother with sharpening up your own skills. Why bother when your Guardian Angel has got things covered?

Let’s have gadgets later and proper, in-depth driving tuition first. Starting with my taxi-driving chum, naturally…

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The Polestar One is a fabulous car – a Volvo, to be precise

Polestar looked at classic Volvo models for inspiration for its new car

IT SOUNDS like something that Gerry Anderson might have conjured up with a couple of string-assisted pilots in mind.

The Polestar One has a name that conjures up images of a machine powered by nuclear reactors and piloted by one of the Tracy family at four times the speed of sound, but in fact this vaguely sci-fi name’s been given to a car, and one that isn’t the normal motor show flight of one-off fancy. It is, according to Volvo, going to be slapped on the back of a fully-fledged production model that’ll be tootling along our streets in about two years’ time.

But it isn’t just the name that’s a bit Blade Runner. This two-door coupe is an electric car backed up by a tiny petrol engine, but with the equivalent of 600bhp on tap it’s easily a match for BMW’s similarly configured i8 supercar. It’ll also only be available to order online and you won’t actually be able to buy it – you subscribe to it, like you would a magazine.

The new arrival also marks the arrival of a new car brand in its own right. To most car nuts Polestar is the Swedes’ answer to what BMW does with its M cars and the magic Mercedes rustles up with its AMG saloons and sports cars, but apparently Polestar is rather more than that. Which is why the new model is going to be followed up by the imaginatively-titled Polestar Two.

Which is a mistake, I reckon. I love the Polestar One’s eco-friendly-yet-exciting take on driving fun and its clever double rear axle. I especially love the way it looks – which is unmistakably like a Volvo.

Specifically, you can tell it borrows plenty of styling cues from the old P1800 so beloved of Simon Templar in The Saint, and beneath those swooping curves it’s based on a Volvo platform too. Yet no matter how hard I peer at the press photos I can’t see the ‘V’ word stamped anywhere on the new arrival, which is a shame. Maybe if they’d launched it when all of Volvo’s cars were styled by toddlers using Etch-A-Sketch toys I’d understand the Swedes being a bit hesitant about launching a Volvo sports car, but these days things are different.

I sincerely hope the Polestar One not only arrives here on time, but does it shouting proudly about its Scandinavian heritage too. It is the coolest car Volvo’s ever made.

The Saab 9000 Turbo is dead. Long live the Kia Stinger

Kia has tough competition from the Germans for its new Stinger sports saloon

MANY have tried, but none have succeeded. Who’d have thought the Saab 9000 Turbo would be such a tricky act to follow?

It’s a curious (and not particularly lucrative) corner of the car market to capture; the people who are in the market for a tarmac-snorting, junior-sized sports saloon that ISN’T a BMW, AMG-tweaked Mercedes of hotted-up Audi. This particularly elusive species of motorist is after something with just enough cachet to cut it outside a nearby golf club (so that’s virtually every fast Ford and sporty Vauxhall out), and is hung up enough about long-term reliability to give anything made by Alfa Romeo a wide berth. Not entirely fairly, I’ve always reckoned.

Just think about all those cars over the years that have offered a 9000 Turbo-esque premise but never really taken off (no jet fighter puns intended). The Lexus IS-F, MG ZT260, Mazda6 MPS, Volvo S60R, Chrysler 300C, Volkswagen Passat W8, for instance. For all their leather seats, ample equipment levels and muted growls from their exhausts none have ever really managed to convincingly win over the anything-but-a-blummin’-BMW brigade. In fact you could argue that Saab itself never nailed it either, given the Swedes ran out of cash five years ago.

But that isn’t going to stop Kia giving it their best shot anyway. Their new BMW-baiter arrives here in January and it’s already onto a winner because it has a cool name; it might not be posh and German, but you can at least tell your mates that you drive a Stinger. Which it makes it sound like an American muscle car.

It also picks up the Saab’s old trick of using turbos to rustle up the sort of mid-range thump that comes in handy on a motorway’s outside lane; in the range-topping 3.3-litre V6 there are two of them, and they send 365bhp to the rear wheels. The upshot is that you’ll end up surging to 60mph in 4.7 seconds and onto a top speed of 168mph. Yes, I know that’s academic when you can only legally do 70mph, but when you bear in mind that sports saloon ownership is basically a better funded version of Top Trumps for grown-ups the big Kia comes across quite well.

For the same sort of money as a BMW 340i you can have a four-door saloon that’s bigger, better equipped, quicker and more powerful – and it’s styled by the same bloke who did the original Audi TT, just for good measure.

So it’s a no-brainer that your next sports saloon’s going to be a Kia Stinger, then? Nope, didn’t think it was. The BMW brochure’s just over there, seeing as you’re asking…

MoT exemption for classic cars is madness – here’s why

Classics like this MGB GT V8 will no longer need an MoT

“IT’S ABOUT the Toyota,” the voice on the other end of the line crackled. “I’m afraid it’s going to need a bit of work.”

The news from the garage came as a bit of a shock. The 1998 Avensis that I’ve been running around in for the past few months isn’t particularly renowned for its country lane prowess, and it’s so dull that I can’t even recall what it looks like, but it is the single most reliable thing I’ve ever owned. I’d also checked it fastidiously before it visited the MoT station, so I wasn’t expecting it to fail.

In the end I coughed up to have a sticky rear brake sorted and I was back on the road an hour later, but if the same problem pops up on my 1972 MGB GT next summer I needn’t bother. As of next May if my 19-year-old Japanese repmobile develops a glitch I’ll have to fix it before it can earn its annual ticket, but my 45-year-old piece of British Leyland heritage won’t legally be required to go into the garage at all.

Which – and I choose my words carefully, lest I be whisked away in a mysterious car belonging to the Department for Transport – is complete madness.

The aforementioned Avensis has never broken down, shed any of its components or so much as hiccupped over 12 months, but the fact that the MoT testers picked up the sticky brake on one of their machines means they were able to spot something I’d have missed otherwise. If a bombproof motorway cruiser (with a fresh set of tyres, belts and barely 30,000 miles on the clock, before you ask) can fail, then what horrors is my MGB or any other forty-something classic car harbouring?

Nor do I buy the Government’s argument that we’ll still be able to take classic cars in for inspection voluntarily; owners of pre-1960 cars, which have already been exempted for the last five years, simply don’t bother. The Department for Transport’s own figures show that only 6% of them take their old cars in for an MoT, given the choice.

The upshot is that this time next year there’ll be quite a few Ford Cortinas, Austin 1100s and MG Midgets rattling along Britain’s roads with no MoT whatsoever – and the thought of one of them suffering some critical component failure at the wrong moment troubles me. The Government reckons the risk involved is very, very small, but I’d rather there’d be no risk at all.

My MGB won’t be among that number, and if you own a tax-exempt classic car I’d urge you in the strongest possible terms to carry on getting it checked. Even if that means getting a few unexpectedly expensive phone calls…

The new TVR Griffith is mad. Which is why you should love it

TVR chose to launch its new Griffith at the Goodwood Revival last weekend

THE NEW Ferrari FXX? Sorry, not really that fussed. The Aston Martin DB11 was lovely, but hardly astonishing. And I was a bit ‘meh’ about the McLaren 570S, to be honest.

I’m sure all three are resolutely thrilling on the right bit of racetrack but it’s entirely forgiveable to be a bit blasé. We’re used to seeing shiny new supercars from all three, all of which are a modicum more impressive than the last one. It’s a bit like Liverpool doing rather well in the Premier League – just like they did last year, and the year before that.

But a new TVR is more like Leicester thundering in and unexpectedly snatching all the silverware, against ridiculous odds. The latest Griffith is the car that so many of us wanted to see, but none of us really believed was ever going to happen. Only that last Friday, after more than a decade of waiting, it did.

Barely a week in and there have already been plenty of comments that it doesn’t look bonkers enough to be a TVR – even I think it’s got shades of Jaguar F-type, but that’s hardly a bad thing. It’s also been fitted with ABS and a sophisticated power steering system but otherwise it’s business as usual for a carmaker that’s crafted its reputation on being ballsy where everyone else plays safe.

It has a V8 not a million miles from what you’ll find in a Ford Mustang but it’s been breathed on by Cosworth so it’s developing something in the region of 500bhp, with a Porsche-troubling power-to-weight ratio of around 400bhp per tonne. Gordon Murray – of McLaren F1 and Mercedes SLR fame – has helped out with the underpinnings, so it shouldn’t drive like an old-school TVR. It’ll be much better than that!

Even the Griffith’s launch makes it loveable. TVR could’ve done the sensible thing and flown out to Frankfurt, where everyone else is unveiling their new metal at the moment, but it decided instead to do it at the Goodwood Revival, a classic car event known for being consciously stuck in the 1960s. It’s emphatically not the place to launch a brand new car – but TVR did it anyway.

In fact the only thing that’s missing from this curiously British resurrection is the old Blackpool factory being brought back into action and giving Lancashire its sports car crown back, but that would be far too predictable for the new boys at TVR.

So they’ve decided to build it in a small town in Wales instead. There you have it – Ebbw Vale is Britain’s answer to Maranello…

Separated at birth – the story of two very different Peugeot hot hatches

Peugeot made one of the greatest hot hatches in the 205 GTI - but prices now can vary wildly

WILLY Russell fans might want to stick around for this week’s motoring musings. It’s essentially Blood Brothers in four-wheeled format, albeit starring a couple of old Peugeots rather than two Scousers separated at birth.

Our two protagonists both happen to 205 GTis, born in the same French factory and fitted with the same delightfully revvy 1.9-litre, 105bhp engine. They were even painted the same shade of Alpine White, and both were welcomed into a world where excitable road testers thought the 205 GTi was the best hot hatch ever made. With the exception of not quite having the same birthday – oh alright, one’s three years older than the other – they’re pretty much identical.

Except, as anyone familiar with Liverpudlian musicals will testify, they really aren’t.

Our two go-faster Peugeots, having led very different lives once they’d left the factory, both happened to go under the hammer at two separate auctions within 24 hours of each other recently. The younger of the two, which had done 103,000 miles but definitely wasn’t a shabby example, was yours for a shade under six grand. That’s a lot more than they used to fetch, but even in 2017 not exactly verging on unreasonable.

But then its older brother stepped into the spotlight. It was a 1988 car that had been given away in a competition – to a winner who couldn’t drive – and as a result still has fewer than 6000 miles on the clock. It’s also been wrapped up in cotton wool every night and doted on for the past five years by a Peugeot evangelist, so you’d expect it’d fetch a little bit more at auction.

It ended up selling for £38,480. That’s 15 grand more than you’ll pay for a brand new 208 GTi, which has airbags, traction control and a warranty.

Obviously just about everyone ended up fixated on what was a phenomenal result for a 29-year-old hot hatch, but if you live in the real world it’s the first price that’ll bear more relevance. Old cars with minimal mileages and unblemished panels come out of the woodwork every so often and go for some eyeball-grabbing price, but it doesn’t suddenly make that old Golf GTi rusting away at your mate’s garage worth a million quid. Only last weekend a Vauxhall Nova with a particularly exciting backstory sold online for £65,000 – that’s Porsche Cayman money – but it doesn’t mean the one you used to own is worth the same.

Blood Brothers ends of course with both protagonists getting shot – something which probably won’t happen to either of our elderly Peugeots. But if you believe the hype and spend over the odds on some vaguely trendy bit of 1980s motoring, you might end up shooting yourself. In the foot, of course…

The Government ban on petrol and diesel in 2040 will be fine for new cars. It’s the old ones I’m worried about

Cars like the BMW i3 have made zero emissions motoring more fashionable

APOLOGIES to Mark Twain’s estate for having to shamelessly pilfer one of his better-known quotes. Reports of the car’s death – which you’ve probably read over the past week or so – have been greatly exaggerated.

Chances are you’ll already be aware of the Government’s intention to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars as of 2040, which a million internet bores instantly took to mean the death knell for motoring fun as we know it. The party that Karl Benz and his pals threw back in 1886 is finally over, because we all overdid it and got drunk on AC Cobras and Range Rover Sports.

But calling it quits isn’t really doing us as a species, particularly those of who love cars, much credit. Ever since we figured out that we had opposable thumbs and could light fires we’ve been pretty good at working out answers to things, and even by the Government’s own prescription we have roughly 23 years to solve this one.

I’m not going to get into how we make the clean energy that propels a zero emissions car but the end result’s a lot better than it used to be. Seven years ago I drove an electric MINI that had a battery so huge it took up the back seats, a range of barely 100 miles and engine braking so severe you could pull up at roundabouts without touching the middle pedal. It only took another two years for the motor industry to invent an electric car that was fun to drive – take a bow, Renault Twizy – and fast forward to 2017 and the charging points at motorway service stations are crammed with Nissan Leafs and Teslas. If we’ve made it this far in seven years, you probably won’t need a diesel Golf as a new car in two decades’ time.

The bit I worry about is what happens with all the old ones. The more intelligent people at Westminster have already said that banning them isn’t the answer, partly because outlawing the MGB is a bit like banning Buckingham Palace and more importantly because the nation’s classic car hobby is worth £5.5 billion to the British economy (and it’s still growing). Horses have been old hat to commuters since the Austin Seven showed up, but they’re still allowed to use our roads.

But the thing with horses is that you only need straw, carrots and a decent vet to keep them going. If everyone else is driving electric cars in 2040 will there still be petrol stations to fill up the MGF or the Peugeot 205 GTI? Or places that can do a new battery for an Audi TT?

The car, I honestly reckon, will live on. It just might be a bit trickier than it used to be.

Mercedes X-Class – the perfect car for Southport’s golfers

The new Mercedes X-Class could be the wheels of choice for the next Open

IT FEELS like the population of Southport’s halved over the last few days. Apparently all the people who’ve just vacated the resort were here for something called ‘the golf’ – and I don’t mean the Volkswagen hatchback, either.

The one thing that did strike me during the North West’s moment in the international sporting spotlight was that virtually everyone seemed to travel to the Royal Birkdale in either a series of commandeered Stagecoach double-deckers, or in a black Mercedes. It felt like every other car was a black E-Class with tinted rear windows.

The Benz blokes have obviously thrown a lot at The Open, which is why it surprised me enormously that it didn’t bring along its latest model. It claims the X-Class is the first pick-up truck from a premium manufacturer, but that’s not entirely the case.

Firstly, the posh pick-up from a luxury carmaker isn’t a new idea, because both Cadillac and Lincoln have already tried it (albeit with virtually no success, which is why they never sold them over here). Secondly, the trimmings might be Mercedes’ finest but the bones most definitely aren’t; keep it quiet, but the X-Class is essentially a Nissan Navara. So I suspect all the building site operatives who actually buy pick-ups are probably going to stick with the cheaper Japanese original.

So who’s going to buy the X-Class? Originally I’d suspected it’d be perfect for anyone who appears in or produces hip hop videos, but I can’t imagine there are too many of those in Formby or Parbold (Straight Outta Crosby does have a nice ring to it, though). Nor is it going to appeal to the sort of managing director types who normally go for big, German off-roaders, because the ML-Class already does it without relying on pick-up truck underpinnings.

But – and this is why I think Mercedes missed a trick at The Open – it has plenty of potential as a golfer’s chariot of choice. It has a sufficiently posh badge to mix it with the Jaguars and BMWs in the club car park, more than enough room inside to take four of your chums out for a quick round, and with it being a pick-up there’s plenty of room out back for all the sets of clubs you’ll ever need. Pack carefully and you could even bring your own golf buggy with you!

I can’t wait for the golf to come back to Southport, because the resort is going to be rammed with X-Class Mercs.

Fair play to Ford for making the Mustang safer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good news 007 – even Aston Martin is downsizing these days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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