Opinion

You don’t need a Porsche to make motoring fun

You don't need a 911-sized budget to make motoring fun
PORSCHE is, I’ve long reckoned, is the only supercar maker that just about everyone can afford to dabble in.

The days of 944s for under a grand and air-cooled 911s for Mondeo money might be long gone but you can easily pick up an early Boxster for less than the price of a secondhand Astra – try doing that with Ferrari or McLaren. I was at a huge Porsche event over in Llandudno and that’s definitely the vibe I picked up from the people taking part. Sure, there were managing directors flying the flag in brand new Caymans, but there were also plenty of petrolheads who just love their cars, even without the enormous budget, and were just as happy to be there.

Except for one chap, who I can only assume was a member of the public who’d got lost. “I dunno, I don’t get what all the fuss is”, he seethed to his other half as he glanced over 650 of Stuttgart’s sports cars, proudly lined up along a North Wales promenade.

“They’re just cars, aren’t they? A means to an end. As long as it’s got a tow bar for my trailer and starts up in the morning, I don’t give a fig”. Only that last word was something else beginning with ‘F’, of course.

For a moment I thought I’d overhead someone who sees cars the way I see football – but then for all the moments I can feel my eyes glazing over every time I head the transfer window being discussed loudly in a pub, I can at least look back at all the few times I’ve been to see Southport play and ended up cheering them on. This bloke, on the other hand, had no time for cars whatsoever.

His loss, especially when you bear in mind that you don’t have to have a Porsche and that motoring fun can be had in just about any form at every budget, taking virtually no effort to attain. A secondhand Mondeo can be picked up for a few hundred quid and they can be very sprightly through the bends. Gently expand your used car budget and the Golf GTI is your oyster. A mate of mine bought a RenaultSport Megane not long ago – 225bhp and finely honed French suspension for just four grand.

Still not convinced? You could snap up a secondhand Land Rover Discovery and have all the space and countryside chic you could ever ask for, or match family practicality with a healthy dose of B-road prowesss with a 5-Series that’s barely in. Even the most sensible family car I can think of, the Skoda Octavia, can be had in smile-inducing vRS form from about £2000 upwards.

All of these cars, of course, can be fitted with a tow bar and will start up a treat first thing in the morning. Not bad for a means to an end.

Advertisements

Tesla tech I can trust – but Mr Middle Lane Hog? Not a chance

You might trust Tesla tech - not the other drivers passing you nearby
TESLAS can do all sorts of completely bonkers – and therefore, entirely brilliant – things that you didn’t know you needed or wanted from your next car.

There is no point, for instance, in it having something called a Ludicrous Mode that enables you to outdrag a Lamborghini Aventador from the traffic lights. Nor do you need an infotainment system that lets you pretend you’re Roger Moore, circa 1977, outrunning the baddies in an early Esprit, or a remote-control system that lets you move the car out of awkwardly tight parking. And you definitely don’t need your next purchase to fund a motoring tycoon who fires his own cars into space for fun. But this is Tesla, so you can do all of these things, and more.

But one thing you definitely can’t do – at least in the eyes of Hertfordshire Constabulary, anyway – is to show off its impossibly smug autonomous driving mode. You might have seen in the news that Bhavesh Patel has been banned from driving, because he decided to let his Model S have a go. Not on a private test track, but on the M1, while he was in the passenger seat.

The last thing I’d want to do is condone Mr Patel driving like a berk (or not at all), but what the incident does prove is just how much of a tightrope Britain’s powers-that-be and the world’s motoring giants are treading when it comes to autonomous driving. Tesla’s tech, weirdly, I think I’d have trusted with a not terribly interesting stretch of motorway, but would I have had an ounce of faith in the chap in the rented Insignia inevitably 200 yards up front in the middle lane? Not a chance.

I’ve said before that while I love driving, and will be a broken man if my right to enjoy it at the helm of an early MX-5 on a Welsh mountain road is ever taken away from me, there are plenty of occasions when in a distant future I’d happily retreat to a Tesla’s rear quarters. My current commute, for instance, is one long, straight flat road that has no overtaking opportunities and a lorry on it that’s inevitably doing 39mph – that’s an hour a day where I could be learning Italian or writing poetry while Elon Musk’s electronics strut their stuff. I know that I wrote in this very column 18 months ago about a self-driving Tesla that was involved in an accident, but technology improves and gets ever safer.

It sounds wonderful – but Britain would have to go autonomous in one huge, legally-binding lunge if it was to ever embrace it properly. Until then the road will be an unhappy mix of diehard traditionalists (that’d be me, then), the vast majority of people who’d love to have their cars do all the hard work but aren’t legally allowed to, and the dimwits in between, who are too busy cutting people up in their rented Insignias to care.

Until then I’ll happily enjoy the Model S’ other mad features. Any Aventador owners fancy a race, then?

Driving top-down? You can have too much of a good thing

Too much sports car fun can damage your health, as our motoring man has discovered

WINE, Italian cuisine and Queen’s Greatest Hits. As I know from painful experience with all three – which normally involves indigestion or annoyed neighbours banging on walls – you definitely can have too much of a good thing.

Unfortunately, I can now add enjoying a sports car, top down, in the spring sunshine to that list. It is, I reckon, exactly the sort of hedonistic petrolhead hoot that makes all those hours spent queuing in city centre traffic jams all worthwhile; the giddy thrill of going exploring in search of a country pub in something that puts the wind in your hair and a big smile on your face. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it in a 1930s MG T-type, a Lotus Seven from the mid-Sixties or a brand-new BMW Z4, because even though their technology is wildly different, the results are always broadly the same.

This is exactly the sort of bright-eyed optimism I ventured out with over a glorious Bank Holiday last weekend in my own small sports car, my trusty (if slightly faded-looking) Mazda MX-5. For a 28-year-old roadster it still works a treat, happily hitting the high notes with its rev counter, time and time again, but unfortunately it seems there’s one component that just isn’t as well engineered for the task as all of Mazda’s double wishbone suspension and twin overhead cam engine trickery. Me, to be exact.

What I’d forgotten was that in blazing sunshine and 24-degree heat that human skin just isn’t as good at coping with hour after hour of top-down fun. I naively ventured out for a two-hour drive to see some old racing cars going sideways at the Donington Historic Festival, spent the day looking at Ford Capris and Jaguar D-types, and spent another two hours driving home again.

Driving with the roof down for hours at a time is deceptive, because the breeze blowing onto your face masks the fact that you’re slowly simmering like a barbecue sausage. It was only when I returned home eight long hours later that I realised my complexion looked like a curious blend of an Oompa Lumpa and a freshly grown tomato. No amount of after sun was going to remedy this one overnight!

So if you are lucky enough to have a two-seater convertible at your disposal, do make sure that you keep a bottle of sun tan lotion to hand so you can keep on applying it throughout the day (and not just first thing in the morning, which was my schoolboy error).

Play it sensibly and you might just be able to enjoy all three days with the top down, as opposed to spending two of them trapped indoors, nursing colossal sunburn.
Although it did give me a chance to crack open a bottle of wine and stick Queen on again, of course…

Why Honda has failed to make the Civic a proper four-door saloon

This new Honda Civic is just about the only small saloon you can buy new in the UK
ARE YOU the sort of tortured soul who gets all misty-eyed over the Ford Orion? Or that discerning driver who wishes that Vauxhall could bring the Belmont back?

Don’t worry, it’s not a trick question. I know that there really are people out there who thought both of these Eighties offerings were thoroughly sensible – if utterly style-free – small saloons that weren’t to be sniffed at. It’s only in the following decade, when the fat-bottomed brethren of the Escort and Astra became joyrider favourites and popped up regularly on Police, Camera, Action that they finally lost their appeal as unpretentious shopping chariots and slipped firmly into banger-dom.

But if you’re the sort of person who looks back fondly on the Triumph Acclaim and is utterly baffled by today’s fashion-conscious off-roaders when all that people should really want is a cheap, reliable saloon, then you’d be forgiven for wondering what happened to the Orion’s ilk. Ford hasn’t sold a Focus saloon for nearly a decade and Vauxhall gave up with booted Astras a long time ago. If you want a new car with a proper boot rather than one of these newfangled hatchbacks then you have to go up a size to the Audi A4s and Jaguar XEs of this world.

Unless, of course, you go knocking at Honda’s door in about two months’ time. Despite the best efforts of some Blade Runner-esque styling and a mad Type-R hot hatch version the Civic is still proving a hit with the sort of sensible Brits who just want a normal, reliable car. So introducing a four-door saloon version is a stroke of genius.

Unlike its hatchback cousin this new Civic isn’t being built at Swindon – it’s actually being bolted together at Honda’s Turkish factory – but otherwise it’s business as usual, with a 1.0-litre petrol or a 1.6-litre turbodiesel doing all the hard work beneath the bonnet. It’ll have the same boringly solid interior materials too, but because the new arrival’s longer and wider than the hatchback it’ll be even roomier on the inside. There’s no word on pricing yet, but if it’s anything like the five-door model you should be able to slip into one for under £20,000.

It’s just a shame that Honda’s fallen at the final hurdle. In order to be a proper small saloon the new Civic needed to look exactly like the hatchback with a really awkward boot grafted onto its rump, and only be available in beige, white, or grey. Instead they’ve made it given it a lovely, coupe-esque profile, set off by metallic colours and alloy wheels that set the shape off without shouting too loudly. Whisper it quietly, but I think it might actually look better than the hatchback it’s based on.

That, Honda, just won’t do. Back to the drawing board, chaps!

The new Ford Focus is great – but the 1998 original was the real revolution

The new Ford Focus range is available to order now
IF FORD’S new Focus drives anything like as well as it looks it should be one of this year’s big hits – but if you can save yourself roughly £17,000 if you want to drive a genuine game-changer.

Wander into a showroom with a blue big oval atop and you’ll be able to order the new kid on the block as either a five-door hatch or as an estate perfect for trips to the tip. It’s not only easier on the eye than the old Focus but cheaper too – £2,300 less to be exact, if you go for the entry model – and if you’re feeling flush there’s a plush Vignale model, with leather seats, a fancy radiator grille and electric everything.

But if you want something truly radical you’ll have to walk past the brand-new offering and go back in time. In fact, you’ll have to conveniently forget that there’s still one on every other corner and that you can pick them up for about 25p these days, because the original Ford Focus was a class act. In a way it’s a shame it sold so well because time and familiarity have dulled its impact.

Just think about what else you could’ve bought back in 1998. There was an Astra that handled neatly but looked about as interesting as a tax return, a solidly built but utterly boring Golf, the fantastic yet flaky Fiat Bravo, and a Peugeot 306 that handled beautifully but had a so-so reputation for reliability. Worst of the lot was Ford’s own Escort, which had been quietly getting better with every facelift but ultimately traced its lineage back to an iffy, me-too effort launched eight years earlier. If you wanted a family hatchback your choice was something that did one thing brilliantly or everything with a ‘that’ll do’ attitude.

So when the first Focus rocked up with its all-round independent suspension, its Punto-esque rear headlights and slightly mad angular headlights it’s hardly a surprise everyone sat up and took notice. It had lots of clever little touches – the boot badge that flips sideways to reveal the key slot, for instance – but the big change was just how well it drove. Every Focus I’ve driven over the years has been thoroughly entertaining on a quiet road and that sort of B-road sparkle is something you come to expect from Ford now, but it’s in a different league to the Escort it replaced.

No wonder it went on to become the nation’s best-selling car – and it’s because you still see them everywhere that we’ve all forgotten just how much it moved things on. I’m sure the new car will be a class act too, but it’ll never have the wow factor its (much) older brother did.

Pininfarina – a genius new name for Mahindra’s European offerings

Pininfarina turned the Peugeot 406 into a truly stunning coupe

A PAL of mine is currently perusing the classifieds for a Peugeot 406 Coupé. Hopefully, by the time you read this, he’ll be the proud owner of one of these gorgeous Gallic two-doors.

Apparently Ford’s Cougar, Vauxhall’s Calibra, the Mercedes-Benz CLK and Volvo’s C70, which all convoy four adults with a reasonable amount of shove in the same sort of two-door package, didn’t even make it onto the shopping list, because there’s one thing that even today sets a 406 Coupé apart. It’s the same thing that makes you lust after a Ferrari 458 Italia and why the Alfa Romeo 164 was always such a head-turner. It’s also what makes my MGB GT so well proportioned.

It is – and petrolhead bonus points if you’ve already guessed it – having Italian design house Pininfarina sprinkle its magic on the cosmetics. Think of it as a sort of automotive Armani, turning the humdrum into handsome and making things of downright desirability when given a free hand. It’s even had a hand in building cars, including Ford’s StreetKa, but thanks to a tie-up with an Indian conglomerate it now wants to be a carmaker in its own right.

The business side of it makes sense. Mahindra is a big player in motoring but in the UK it’s best known for its dreadful Jeep knock-offs – it has the money to take part in the increasingly lucrative market here in Europe for luxury offerings, but not the street cred. Citroen, for instance, has decided to take on BMW and Mercedes by creating its DS sub-brand, whereas Chinese conglomerate Geely have gone for the Blue Peter ‘Here’s one we made earlier’ approach by snapping up Volvo and Lotus.

But launching a brand with a name already associated with Ferrari’s better-looking offerings is bordering on genius. All it has to do now is the opposite of what most glitzy product launches manage. Make sure it has the style to match the substance.

Automobili Pininfarina hasn’t put out any pictures of what its new car looks like yet but if it’s anything other than jaw-droppingly amazing I’ll be disappointed. This is the name that not only turned the repmobile Peugeot 406 into one of the best-looking cars of the Nineties, but it’s also behind the Ferrari Daytona, Testarossa and F355, the Lancia Montecarlo, the Fiat Dino, the Alfa Romeo GTV and the Jaguar XJ6 Series III. With a blank slate and Mahindra’s money behind it, Pininfarina’s first production car really ought to be so pretty that you leave it your phone number rather than drive it.

If it pulls that off than it might just pull you away from the pile of brochures you have for the C-Class, 3-Series and A4. Or you could save yourself about 20 grand and get the same sort of visual sparkle from a 406 Coupé. See, we’re full of useful consumer tips at The Champion

A needlessly expensive Rolls-Royce off-roader? Sign me up

The Rolls-Royce Cullinan - seen here in prototype camouflage - is being launched later this year
I IMAGINE there are quite a lot of entries under ‘K’ on the waiting list for Rolls-Royce’s next model; Kanye, Kim, Khloe and Kourtney for starters.

When you name your new model after the world’s biggest diamond it’s inevitable that it’s going to end up with rather bling connotations, even before it’s launched. But then that’s the Rolls-Royce Cullinan all over – it’s a Range Rover for people who consider the Range Rover a bit too common. It’s an off-roader with a whisper-quiet V12 where the establishment makes do with ‘just’ a supercharged V8. A toff-roader, if you will.

It is a completely pointless, jacked-up Phantom that in reality will never venture any further than a slightly damp stretch of field immediately outside Aintree Racecourse or the Royal Birkdale – in fact, you’re more likely to see one appearing on MTV Base alongside someone whose name begins with K.

But that doesn’t stop me liking it. Bentley and Jaguar doing posh mud-pluggers just doesn’t sit right with their carefully honed collective heritage as custodians of well-heeled driving fun, but a Rolls-Royce off-roader is so delightfully silly that it might just work. It’s Kingsman in automotive form; still refined enough to insist that you call its offerings motor cars, but in the background it’s teaming up with The Who’s Roger Daltry for its charity ventures, letting grime artist Skepta spec up the speakers on its one-offs and allowing its older cars to take part in marvellously OTT displays at the Goodwood Revival.

So the idea of taking your Cullinan to the Arctic Circle and lording it over everyone slumming it in Toyota pick-ups – and Rolls-Royce has been testing the new car there, just to make sure it’ll cope – fits in perfectly with the manufacturer’s softly spoken sense of fun. If it can haul itself up the same mucky hill as a Range Rover, but in a much more needlessly expensive way, then so be it. The one per cent have been doing pointless things with Rolls-Royces for generations, and the Cullinan fits in perfectly.

And if any pub bores do wander over (and it’ll be a very upmarket pub, presumably) and start piping up about how Rolls-Royce shouldn’t be doing off-roaders, then you can point out that it was taking on remote places and winning long before Jeeps and Land Rovers were even conceived. In the 1920s farmers used to travel around the Australian Outback in Silver Ghosts because they were the toughest things on the market. So the Cullinan does have off-roading pedigree.

So I like Rolls’ toff-roader because it’s a completely needless car that I’ll never be able to afford. Unless I change my name to one with beginning with K, of course…

Top Gear needs to lose its test track – and The Stig

The Track-tor is one of the hlghlights of the latest Top Gear series

SO Whitehall bureaucracy has succeeded where the Argentine government, the Mexican embassy and the Daily Mail have failed. Even a late-night platter of cold meat – served in a North Yorkshire hotel, of course – tried to finish Top Gear off, but if you believe the tabloids then it’s a dispute over building houses that’ll finally force the Beeb’s motoring juggernaut to pull over.

For those of you haven’t had your head buried in the newspapers over the Easter weekend then it essentially boils down to this; the site where both the TG studios and the infamous test track are located have been earmarked for more than 1000 new homes, and last week Housing Secretary Sajid Javid ruled in the developers’ favour. Perhaps in a few years’ time Surrey’s first-time buyers will be snapping three-bed semis in Hammerhead Close and Gambon Grove.

But even if it does go ahead, will it kill Top Gear off? Not a chance. In fact, I reckon it’s exactly the shot in the arm that the show needs.

I reckon that with every series under the Harris/Le Blanc/Reid premiership the show’s steadily getting stronger, by gorging itself on a diet of properly done, serious car reviews. The bits that are funny are the bits that don’t feel forced; the hilarious segment with the V8 tractor worked because Matt Le Blanc really does have an infectious enthusiasm for farm machinery, owning four tractors in real life. And watching Chris Harris performing all those balletic mid-corner routines is wonderful because he’s clearly in his element doing it.

But the bits that really grate are the ones the trio have inherited from the old Clarkson/Hammond/May era. Specifically – and forgive the very old TG reference – they need to find another old Jaguar, stick The Stig in it and fire him off the end of an aircraft carrier for good.

The Stig – invented by Clarkson and now Grand Tour exec producer Andy Willman to avoid having a dull racing driver setting the lap times – feels like a groupie who’s outstayed their welcome, or that episode of I’m Alan Partridge where the protagonist awkwardly hangs around a funeral trying to convince someone important to give him a job. If the BBC won’t allow the not-so-mysterious racing driver to rejoin his old chums over on The Grand Tour then he really ought to be quietly pensioned off, so the show’s real stars can get into their stride. It was side-splitting when The Stig arrived in an Isle of Man-based TG episode on the baggage carousel at Douglas Airport, but now the character is baggage of an entirely different sort.

If Top Gear loses its test track it’ll be a great opportunity to relocate the show, keep the good bits and dump all the bits that started wearing thin a decade ago, including the tame racing driver. Some say that he’s no longer funny…

Milton Keynes is the venue to win motoring hearts and minds

Ford has developed technology that can sense empty parking spaces
A LONG time ago the blistering heat of the California desert or a fortnight spent in the bitter cold of the Arctic circle were what counted when it came to developing your new car. But it turns out that the latest battleground for motoring supremacy is… Milton Keynes.

Ford dispatched a fleet of Mondeos fitted with some very clever experimental equipment there and – in the best traditions of Tomorrow’s World – a man with a beard and a tweed jacket to attempt to explain their cunning new plan. Essentially, they’ve sent a team of drivers out into this glorious 1960s vision of a New Town and asked them simply to park somewhere. Which, if you’ve ever been to Milton Keynes on a busy Monday morning, can be easier said than done.

If all goes to plan, the Fiesta or Focus you buy in a few years’ time will be able to scan the car park quicker you can, letting you know exactly where that elusive empty space is before the irritating birk in the BMW 1-Series swoops in and steals it at the last second. It’s important stuff; apparently most of us motoring types lose a day a year looking for parking spaces.

Naturally, Volkswagen wasn’t going to let Ford take all the credit for solving our parking problems forever, and just a few days later put out a press release pointing out that it’s been honing its Park Assist system for more than 20 years across three generations of tech, and is now working on an app that’ll talk to your Golf and let you know where all the empty – and better still, cheap – spaces are.

The fact that the combined brainpower of at least two motoring giants is finally being applied to making parking less irritating is wonderful, but what I’m really looking forward to is seeing the Fiestas and Polos of a decade’s time solving the really annoying problems of car parks. Wouldn’t it be great, for instance, if they could fire lasers at all those off-roaders parked diagonally across three spaces? Or have anyone who clips your bodywork with a carelessly-opened door automatically arrested on the spot and sentenced to four years’ hard labour for automotive neglect? I’d go out and buy a new Golf tomorrow if it knew what to do when the ticket reader at a multi-storey stops working, leaving you trapped with six impatient shoppers stuck behind you.

What I’d suggest to Ford is that carries on its important research in the interests of helping the British public by moving its crack team of Mondeo-driving scientists a bit further north than Milton Keynes.

If they – or Volkswagen’s researchers, for that matter – can solve the stresses of parking in Southport town centre or the Skelmersdale Concourse for good, then their millions will have been worthwhile.

Cars might fly – if they weren’t so expensive

PAL-V has launched its Liberty as the first production-ready flying car

KEEN students of irony will surely remember the past week as a pivotal week in Europe’s transport. In the same week that Chris Grayling announces that it won’t be too tricky to police Britain’s borders post-Brexit some Dutch blokes decide to launch a production-ready flying car.

But I wouldn’t get too worried about the prospect of unchecked immigrants zipping straight over the customs booths at Dover while border officials look on helplessly from the ground, perhaps wondering whether some sort of giant net needs to be built from the white cliffs upwards. If you’ve genuinely trekked halfway across Europe in search of a better life in Blighty you almost certainly aren’t going to spend Lamborghini Aventador money on the new PAL-V Liberty to get there.

That’s what this new three-wheeler, which has been claimed as a world first at this year’s Geneva Motor Show because its makers are taking orders in readiness for a 2019 launch, are asking.

For your £290,000 you get a mid-engined two-seater which uses not one, but two engines to rustle up 400bhp. The top speed’s 100mph in the air and slightly more on the ground, and once you take off it’ll be able to cruise for about four hours and roughly 300 miles before you need to fill it up again. And it runs on good old fashioned petrol, since you’re asking.

It is the closest stab anyone’s made so far at making a flying car that works, largely because its makers have realised that trying to mate an aeroplane or helicopter with a car always ends up being crushingly expensive to buy and run. So they’ve based it on an autogyro instead – a petite flying wonder with wings that fold away and tiny, lightweight petrol engines. Sean Connery managed to fight off an entire squadron of helicopters with one in You Only Live Twice, so they can’t be that bad!

But until someone invents a flying car that doesn’t require a Lamborghini price tag and 35 hours of flight training I don’t think they’re going to take off (sorry). Only when it offers Ford Focus-rivalling levels of practicality, an Audi A4-sized price tag and the intuitive driveability of either will we all be hopping into PAL-Vs and soaring through the skies to work. We’ve reached an age where we can wirelessly download Bruno Mars’ entire back catalogue onto a mobile phone in a matter of minutes, but a vision of commuting imagined in The Jetsons still seems hopelessly distant.

If you are serious about using the heavens over the M57 as your route to work I’d suggest a secondhand helicopter instead – the good ones start at about £50,000, which is a big saving over a PAL-V.

For everyone else it’ll have to a Golf, Astra or Focus. Sorry, traffic jams are here to stay…