Opinion

Ford Fiesta – still brilliant in a high-tech Britain

THE future can hang on a minute.

I know that we’re supposed to boldly sailing – on a solar-powered catamaran, presumably – into a brave new world of lab-grown, meat-free burgers delivered by drones, but right now there’s still a McDonalds on every busy road and a JD Wetherspoon in virtually every town centre. Your whole life can be conducted on Android and yet sales of vinyl records are up year-on-year. Perhaps most pertinently, for all the talk that electric cars and automation are the future, last time I looked the decidedly analogue Ford Fiesta was still Britain’s best-selling new car.

At the moment all the muttering is about how the humble supermini is about to embrace zero-emissions motoring. Renault’s Zoe has been chipping away at this bit of the market for a while (don’t worry, the Clio’s still very much available), but Vauxhall is being brave and launching its Corsa in all-electric form first, and it’s a similar story for Peugeot’s latest 208.

But while there is a plug-in hybrid Fiesta on the way the current range depends on a blend of rather more familiar petrol and turbodiesel engines, and it feels all the better for it. It’s as bit like Liam Gallagher – yes, it’s the same old act, and yet only last weekend it was good enough to headline Glastonbury.

I know because last weekend I spent 700 miles thumping up and down the British road network in a Zetec-spec EcoBoost – and couldn’t, with the exception of three very minor moans, couldn’t knock it. With the current Fiesta, introduced 18 months ago, it feels like you sit on the seats rather than in them, it still lacks mid-range thump in one-litre form, and on the motorway the ride’s a bit more fidgety than I’d ideally like, but that’s about it. In other respect Ford’s taken what it had with the 2009-era Fiesta, revisited absolutely everything, and quietly made it better rather than reinventing the wheel.

So while the turbocharged three cylinder engine still revels in a few revs to get results, it managed to average a fairly hefty fifty to the gallon – and I wasn’t on any sort of eco run. On the motorways it was long-legged enough to make light work of a voyage to Scotland and back – and when it wasn’t it could still entertain me on the B-roads, offering just enough feedback through its chunky, three-spoke steering wheel. Even the little things won me over; plenty of superminis integrate their stereo systems into a touchscreen system these days but the Fiesta gives you old-fashioned buttons beneath it as well, so you could flick between Joy Division and The Cure without losing the sat nav.

I suspect the reason the Ford Fiesta, even when every other new car is a crossover, electric car or plug-in hybrid, is still Britain’s biggest seller is because it’s ruddy good at what it does. The Suzuki Swift might match it when comes to generating grins, VW’s Polo has a more premium feel and the Fiat 500 is a lot more charming, but it’s tricky to think of a better all-rounder.

Why everyone loved the slowest car at Goodwood this year

SO THE brake dust has settled and the tyre marks on the tarmac have finally been swept up. The Goodwood Festival of Speed – arguably now the nation’s biggest event for seeing exciting new cars – is over for another year.

Anyone who ventured the 270 miles south (I’ve long thought that the Duke of Richmond should set up a northern spin-off, but that’s another story) would have seen the new Land Rover Defender, albeit as a heavily disguised test mule, ahead of its official launch. They also got a sneak preview of the new Lotus supercar, the Evija, and a chance to check out Ford’s latest ST hot hatch.

But the highlight is getting see all sorts of shiny supercars, single seaters and race and rally stars going “up the hill” – as in being driven to within an inch of their lives up a road snaking its way through the grounds of Goodwood House. A 20-year-old record was smashed by Volkswagen, which pummelled its all-electric ID.R racer along the course in a staggering 39.9 seconds. I’m not sure what the slowest time up the hill at this year’s event was – but I’ve a sneaking suspicion it might have been me.

I know this because even though the batch of cars getting ready to thunder past the Goodwood crowds wasn’t even within sniffing distance of the ID.R’s vital stats, they were still pretty well endowed when it came to outright oomph; entries included the Ferrari GTC-4 Lusso, Lamborghini’s Huracán and McLaren’s 570S Spider. Meanwhile, some very brave people at Citroën asked if I’d like to have a crack. In a 2CV.

Sportingly, they’d given me the fastest version on offer – a 1989 2CV6, which has a 602cc two-cylinder engine rather than the earlier 425cc version – but that still meant I had just 29bhp to play with and a 0-60mph time of 29.8 seconds. Ever watched For Your Eyes Only and wondered how Roger Moore managed to get away from a brace of Peugeot-driving baddies in one? He didn’t – the cars they used in the film had been fitted with engines from the GS, whereas the car I’d been entrusted with hadn’t.

But that didn’t matter a jot once the brand-new supercars had screeched off into the distance, racking up times the French big-seller could only dream of, because everyone loved the 2CV. Crowds unmoved by yet another Ferrari cheered and waved when they saw it leaning and lurching through the corners, its skinny tyres doing their best to squeeze every last mile an hour out of the car. A few minutes later it’d chalked up yet another fan. It’s the first time I’ve really driven a 2CV for any meaningful length of time, and I loved its packaging, its characterful two-cylinder clatter, its light but beautifully communicative steering and, best of all, how it keeps motoring to the bare minimum and puts 110 per cent into the few things it does have.

Never have I been so delighted to have finished last – but if it’s smiles-per-pound we’re judging this year’s Festival of Speed on, I reckon I’ve found the standout winner.

Why a V8 Aston Martin deserves to be James Bond’s next co-star

HE OTHER week Prince Charles dropped in to see Daniel Craig to see how work on the new James Bond film is shaping up. Which is probably a good thing, because I’d like to think he also had a quiet word with the film’s producers and asked them nicely to hurry up with making it.

But with the world’s cameras firmly trained on the Prince of Wales’ visit it almost felt as though a crucial new detail from the film, confirmed by the official James Bond Twitter account, seemed weirdly overlooked. I’d been expecting the Aston Martin DB5 – having already shown up in Skyfall and Spectre – to make a comeback, but what I hadn’t been counting on was one of my favourite film cars of all time, the Aston Martin V8 from The Living Daylights to rock up as well.  

But some fan footage taken during the filming confirmed possibly the best bit of movie-related news I’ve heard all year. Until now, the 1987 Aston has spent most of its time sat in museums looking a bit unloved, but look on YouTube and there’s a short clip of sweeping along a rather stunning-looking Norwegian road, being chased by a cameraman in a helicopter. I’m not entirely sure how the film’s makers are going to explain it, seeing as Bond fans will know that a car with the same registration was blown up on a Czechoslovakian hillside fairly early on into The Living Daylights, but I’m glad that it’s back.

More importantly, I’m hoping that Aston’s glad, too. For years the DB-generation Astons have been the real stars of its heritage operations, so much so that it’s started making some of its biggest hits again for (very rich) car nuts. Last year it announced a run of DB5s virtually identical to the one Sean Connery turned into a household name in Goldfinger – complete with primitive 1960s navigation system, fake guns and revolving numberplate – and now it’s resurrected the DB4 GT Zagato, a super-rare 1950s model reclothed in a sleeker, Italian designed skin to aid aerodynamics.

But the Astons I – and a lot of other people of my age, who are now in the position to buy old cars – grew up with were the much later V8s, and I bet I’m not the only thirtysomething for whom Tim Dalton’s much grittier take on saving the world was James Bond. I would love to see Aston Martin giving its V8s – particularly the Vantage, with its colour-coded, blanked-off radiator grille and 400bhp on tap – the same treatment as its DB models of the 1960s, and for a limited run of re-created models to head back to the showrooms. I’ll never be able to afford one, of course, but in a world of plug-in hybrids and me-too crossovers there’s definitely room for a car like it.

Until then I’ll carry on waiting for the next James Bond film – which is already about six months late, no matter how brilliant it is. Perhaps another member of the Royal Family can have a quiet word with them…

Noise-sensitive cameras? Look elsewhere, TVR owners…

I STILL haven’t finished writing my letters of apology to the neighbours yet. I own an old car that’s a bit noisy – and I had to fire it up at 5am the other morning.

It’s a Reliant Scimitar GTE with a hulking great V6 at one end and some ‘cherry bomb’ exhausts at the other and – being fully aware of its Pete Townshend-esque vocal qualities – I tend to restrict its outings to Sunday afternoons, when everyone’s either filing out of churches or heading into pubs. But on this particular occasion, following an incident where it cut out in some motorway roadworks and a subsequent 12-hour AA breakdown recovery, I had to briefly start it up so I could nurse it from the recovery truck and back into the garage. For all the poor folk who had a Ford-powered wake-up call as a result – I’m sorry.

But what’s worrying me, and a lot of other TVR, hot hatch and motorbike devotees, is something that the Department for Transport’s trying out at the moment; noise-detecting numberplate-recognition cameras.

I completely understand why they’re being trialled, particularly because I live on a busy residential thoroughfare where lads barely beyond their GCSEs blast past at stupid ‘o’ clock on two-stroke bikes that sound worse than Madonna’s recent Eurovision performance. Not only are these oiks thoroughly annoying everyone else, but the DfT’s worried that the resultant noise levels are actually breaking the law, because the bikes have been modified illegally. Fair enough.

But what I am worried about are people like my TVR Chimaera-owning mate getting stick from the locals if said trials are a success, and there being a slow but relentless sleepwalk into any legal-but-loud vehicle being condemned because it’s got an exhaust that’s a bit shoutier than normal. I’ve already mentioned that – emergency breakdown recovery aside – I self-police the Scimitar’s start-ups to avoid winding the neighbours up, but what if I want to take it out for a run to a country pub one evening? Could I, in a not-so-distant future, earn an ASBO simply for driving it back home again?

This isn’t about defending people who ride illegally-modified motorbikes around late at night, but making sure anyone who owns an older (and slightly noisier car) isn’t caught out. Same goes for anyone with a cherished Moto Guzzi in their garage or a prized Lambretta taking up residence in their living room – and don’t get me started on my various mates who own old buses! All of which are machines that might not pass noise regulations designed for brand new cars, but passed every law when they were new and are owned completely legally by law-abiding taxpayers who just want to get on with their hobby.

The Department for Transport is playing a tricky game here. It’s doing the right thing by going after the folk who keep everyone else up at night with stuff that isn’t even legal – but I dread the day that law-abiding chaps and chap-ettes in their TVRs are vilified too.

BMW has made the 1-Series a bit worse – by making it a lot better

WHAT you’re looking at here – well, at least it would be, in some weird parallel universe where BMW had done things a bit differently – is the latest Rover 45.

The reason I mention BMW’s ill-fated six-year ownership of the West Midlands’ biggest carmaker is because that was originally going to be Munich’s way into mass market cars, with the 75 topping off a range of hatchbacks and saloons that would’ve taken the fight to Ford, Vauxhall, and so on. But it wasn’t, Rover is long gone, and instead it’s the 1-Series that picked up that baton instead.

This week BMW’s started taking orders for the all-new, third-generation model, which hits the company’s UK showrooms in September. It could be a pivotal moment in BMW’s gradual quest for world domination (which, bizarrely, also includes teaming up with direct rivals Mercedes to develop electric models), because it’s having to drop something that’s at the heart of everything BMW stands for in order to make it a better car.

Rear-wheel-drive. BMW used to bang on in its adverts about how sending all the oomph to the back wheels made their cars better balanced and that little bit more satisfying to drive than their front-hauled rivals – and if all the ones I’ve driven over the years are anything to go by, from 320Ds to M5s, I’d have to agree. But BMW’s insistence on fitting its smallest offering with it too meant it was offering the first rear-drive hatchback since the Vauxhall Chevette went out of production – and they were compromised cars for much the same reasons.

In a big, powerful saloon it makes sense to send all that horsepower to the back, but in a smaller hatchback the propshaft robs space from the interior, which is why the outgoing 1-Series always had a chunky transmission tunnel between the driver and passenger and felt oddly cramped in the back. The new, front-wheel-drive 1-Series is a lot roomier than the outgoing car, which for the families who actually live with them day-to-day are really going to appreciate.

The bit that BMW are going to have be spot on with, though, is their claim that it’s more agile and fun to drive than the old 1-Series – which was a right laugh on a quiet country road – was. Get it right, and make it feel like a properly sorted BMW should, and it’ll have a generation of faithful customers who value that sort of thing hooked for years. It’ll particularly matter when it eventually brings out a go-faster 1M model – a lot of people who own these take them on track days and want to drift delicately around corners, and it’s going to be tricky to pull that off in a front-wheel-drive hatchback.

Get it wrong and BMW will be accused of selling out by going front-wheel-drive. In which case it might as well have stuck with the Rover 45.

The BMW 7-Series is a cool car – shame about the new front end

I’M GOING to stick my neck out and say it; I reckon that the 7-Series is the only truly cool car in BMW’s current range.

There are plenty of exceptionally talented all-rounders – take a bow, current 5-Series – donning the blue-and-white propeller atop their bonnets but nowadays they’re a bit too everyday, especially when you consider that the 3-Series outsells the Ford Mondeo. The M2 is a properly focused performance hero of the old school, but it’s also a bit obvious, and while the i8 comes close because it’s a hybrid that just happens to be a supercar with butterfly doors, it’s also a bit too look-at-me to be considered cool. Oh, and there are plenty of BMWs that don’t even come close. Who, at a company that’s built its entire reputation on perfectly balanced rear-drivers, though the 2-Series Active Tourer was a good idea?

But wafting about in a needlessly big, £70,000 BMW, especially when the 5-Series and the X5 off-roader already do everything it can for less, takes a particularly devoted sort of owner. To drive a 7-Series – and you invariably will, because owners tend to take the wheel rather than being chauffeured – you have to walk past the S-Class in the Mercedes showroom over the road, forget the roomier digs of the Range Rover and dismiss everything made by Jaguar, Lexus and Audi for this sort of money. It’s also the getaway car of choice in Bodyguard, for added petrolhead points.

But why – and I’m not sure if anyone at BMW’s headquarters in Munich gets The Champion delivered – did they have to give the latest version that massively oversized radiator grille? BMW itself describes it as ‘significantly larger’ than the double-kidney grille fronting the outgoing 7-Series, and points out that it’s now fitted with clever electronic flaps that can open up to give the engine – be it the V12 or, far more likely, the six-pot diesel – an extra hit of cold air when things heat up. It just about worked on the new X7 off-roader but on here it looks as though someone at BMW spent ages crafting a beautiful radiator grille, phoned over the details to the chaps working on the rest of the car but then got cut off just as he was about to relay over the dimensions.

So it’s a definite nein on the front end but I’ll happily have the rest of it. While I’m tempted to say the range-topping M760Li is the coolest of the only truly cool car BMW currently makes, simply because no one really needs to have four-wheel-drive and a 6.6-litre V12 with 585bhp, I think the one to go for is the 745e. That’s the model where you’ll get a petrol-powered straight six – the sort of engine Munich does better than anyone else – and a hybrid electric powerplant, so you can enjoy beautifully balanced BMW handling and glide happily into low emissions areas because you’ve got a hybrid.

You’ll just have to hope that nobody’s looking at that front-end, that’s all.

Why Peugeot buying Jaguar would make sense

HERE’S a priceless bit of pub trivia for you. Europe’s biggest producer of pizzas is based not in Naples or Milan, but on an industrial estate in Leyland, and owned by a thoroughly sensible German conglomerate.

Yet the grub, even though it’s proudly made by Lancashire folk and bankrolled by the Dr Oetker corporation, is unmistakeably Italian. In much the same way that I took my other half out for a spaghetti carbonara made by a bloke in Lincolnshire and created from UK-sourced ingredients, but the enormous Italian tricolore over the restaurant’s front door said all you needed to know about its national identity.

So it shouldn’t bother you even slightly that the new Land Rover Defender is going to be made in Slovakia, by a company that’s owned by an Indian conglomerate. Or – scratch that last part, if the latest rumours are correct – by a French conglomerate. Specifically, the one behind the Peugeot 308 and the Citroën C4 Cactus.

Jaguar Land Rover, at least at the time of writing, has been swift to deny any talk of its Indian owners at Tata selling up after a decade in the leather-lined driving seat, but I don’t actually reckon it’s a bad thing. Largely because Peugeot and Citroen have tried for years to blag the golf club parking spaces so typically bagged by BMW, Audi and Mercedes models – and never really nailed it.

Readers with particularly long memories might recall that Citroën owned Maserati for a bit, which resulted in the wonderful SM coupé but not much else. Then it tried a succession of big-engined four-doors under its own names – the Citroën XM and Peugeot 605 spring to mind – but the vast majority of would-be buyers outside of France shrugged and bought BMWs anyway. More recently, it’s tried doing what Toyota did with Lexus by spinning Citroën’s more upmarket models into its DS brand – but why go to all the bother when you can simply buy out the people who brought you the Range Rover and Jaguar XJR?

I’m still not entirely sure why Peugeot-Citroën bought Vauxhall but snapping up JLR makes complete sense, as it gives it a foothold in all those markets where brand prestige matter. I just hope that they give it the same autonomy that Tata and – to a lesser extent, Ford before it – did, allowing the experts behind Land Rover’s clever off-roading tech and Jaguar’s beautifully honed suspension to get on with what they know best.

Do that and they’ll still be the Dr Oetker frozen pizzas of the car world – it won’t matter who funds it and where they’re built, because the people who really matter, the people buying them, will think of them as brilliant British cars.

Get it wrong and it’ll be hotpot and Sauerkraut on the same plate. Yuck!

The Ford Capri – even a broken one is better than a Dacia

POOR old Dacia. I’m sure it meant well with its latest online ad campaign, but from what I’ve seen it seems to have backfired a bit.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, there’s an ongoing campaign to promote the Sandero Stepway, a shortened version of which dripped into my Instagram feed the other night. It shows a group of lads gathered on a driveway around an immobile Ford Capri, before another chap – this time with a big smile – beckons you towards a shiny, fully-functioning piece of reasonably priced Romanian hatchback. The inference being that you can have a brand-new car, complete with three-year warranty, instead of Ford’s malfunctioning old one. So far, so good.

Except that not a single one of the comments underneath it seemed to agree. Once you’d got past the swearing the executive summary of just about everyone went something along the lines of; “Actually, chaps, we’d still rather have the Capri, even if it is a broken one. It’ll be worth more, too”. One of them was so offended he referred the manufacturer’s ad to the chaps at Classic Ford magazine.

I suspect that if Dacia had picked any old car there’d have been an outcry of some form – Richard Hammond’s decision to attack an Austin Allegro Estate with a crowbar on the last episode of The Grand Tour met with a similar response – but what it has done is shown just how much the Ford Capri is part of Britain’s national character. Picking on it was never going to be a smart move.

The Capri – which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, incidentally – is one of those cars that has a UK following that borders on the fanatical. Even when it was still a current model in Ford’s range it was lapped up by us long after it had been deleted from other European markets, to the extent that all of the cars coming out of Ford’s Cologne factory headed straight over the North Sea to UK dealers. There are clubs and car shows across the UK dedicated to the car – and you can’t say that about the Sandero Stepway. What’s more, I reckon that while you can still (just about) buy a broken one for less than the cost of a new Dacia, you’d struggle to do the same with a working one, with a V6 version setting you back something in the region of £10,000, and the Tickford and Brooklands versions considerably more.

Why? Nostalgia. If you didn’t know someone who had a Capri back in the day, then you probably knew someone who lusted after one. With that pretty body draped over sturdy – if not exactly space age – Cortina mechanicals it made perfect sense, which is why it made regular appearances in the list of Britain’s best-selling cars throughout the Seventies and early Eighties.

I’m sure that, looking at logically, the Sandero Stepway is a better, safer, more reliable car that spends less time at the pumps and is easier to live with. But I know which I’d rather have.

How my MX-5 helped to break two world recordS

rhdr

LAST weekend I broke a Guinness World Record. Well, me and 1,543 other people, from all walks of life and every corner of the country.

What did we all have in common, other than all happening to be on the same windswept airfield in North Yorkshire last Sunday? The Mazda MX-5. You won’t have seen it because all the news cameras were down in London focusing on some running event that took place the same day but the result was spectacular; a convoy of sports cars stretching as far as the eye could see, all moving in unison. It was spread across four lanes of cars taking up the entire length of Elvington’s three-kilometre runway and back again, plus the taxiways linking it all together. So there you have it – the world record for the biggest ever parade of convertibles now belongs to a load of us who own Mazda MX-5s (and the record for the biggest ever parade of Mazdas too, for that matter).

There were MX-5s everywhere, but if you’d have been in for a bit of a shock if you think that once you’ve seen one MX-5, that you’ve seen them all. Sure, there were shedloads of bog-standard cars, but there were also super-rare BBR Turbo models and RS models shipped in specially from Japan. There were lads who tricked theirs up with big alloys and bodykits, and a lady who’d given hers some TVR Tuscan-esque flip paintwork. And, of course, mine; a Eunos V-Spec with lots of little luxuries that were never offered here on the UK MX-5s. Say what you like about the world’s best-selling sports car being fitted with an auto box, but I’ll have the wood, leather and air con any day.

But the really big shock was getting out of Yorkshire and back to reality. Head out in an MG or an Alfa Spider and you’re virtually guaranteed a cheery wave if you pass a fellow owner coming the other way, but in an MX-5 it’s a rare occurrence, and even now, three decades after the MkI was originally launched, you’ll still get occasional sneering comment if you take one to a classic car show.

Which is all Mazda’s fault, of course. Had it made the MX-5 a bad car that breaks down all the time, fewer people would’ve bought them and wouldn’t have been inclined to use them as daily drivers. I know plenty of people who still use MX-5s fast approaching their 30th birthday as everyday cars – which means you see them more often, and that sort of takes away the novelty. Which is why, I figure, most of them don’t wave.

I reckon it’s time they started giving those cheery waves in the same way other owners of old cars do – and that they get their names down next time there’s another attempt at the record. At the last count there were 26,438 MX-5s on the UK’s roads – a​nd I’m sure a few of the 95% who didn’t take part last weekend would be another go.

They’re going to need a longer runway next time.

Why the MG Hector needs to be a sales hit

HECTOR was – according to Government’s own statistics – the 90th most popular name for baby boys in Britain back in 1905. After that it dropped out of the top 100, and has never reappeared since.

So I can safely say that there are few Hectors to heckle me if I declare that it’s just about the worst name to give a new car. Yet that’s genuinely what MG is calling its latest model. The MG Hector. Say that again. The MG…Hector?

The name’s apparently taken from a World War II biplane – the Hawker Hector, which itself was christened in honour of a mythical Trojan prince – but this isn’t anything like the Triumph Spitfire or the Bristol Blenheim. Those were cars that lived up to their aeronautical namesakes by being sleek, agile and proudly British. The MG Hector, which is about to go on sale in India, but has no planned UK launch yet – is a rebadged version of a rather bloated-looking Chinese 4×4, the Baojun 530. Not since the Mazda MPV has a carmaker got a badge so depressingly spot-on. The new MG actually looks like a right old Hector.

Yet I want it to do fantastically well. Forget the MGB selling half a million units and becoming Britain’s best-ever selling sports car; ideally the Hector, even if it doesn’t come to the UK, needs to snapped up by roughly a quintillion eager buyers each year.

It’s perfectly equipped to pull off such a feat, especially in its core markets of India and China. The one thing the Chinese love even more than Britain’s heritage is copious amounts of rear legroom, and the MG Hector has ample amounts of both. If they released a long-wheelbase version and called it the William Wordsworth Special Edition, they’d double sales overnight. This is the country that called one of its cars the Byton – with no sense of irony whatsoever – simply because its name sounded English and imposing.

It’s also offered with a sensible choice of a 1.5-litre petrol and choice of Jeep-sourced diesel engines, and MG – over there, at least – is selling in on its equipment levels and how it’s constantly connected to the internet. It is perfect for the Chinese market, and I really hope that they sell every single one.

I mean it. Every single one, because the money MG makes from Hector sales is what it needs to finally fund the new sports car the rest of us have been crying out for. Sports cars don’t have a great reputation for powering profits – which is why Porsche makes the Cayenne, and why BMW reportedly sold every Z8 it ever made at a loss – but they’re crucial when it comes to building exciting brands. MG desperately needs a new Midget. Or, at the very least, a proper sporting saloon or hot hatch that lives up to everything the two most evocative letters in motoring stand for.

If the business case doesn’t stack up on its own then it’ll just have to be subsidised by all those people buying Hectors. Even if it means having to bring it to Britain, I reckon it’ll be a price worth paying.

Just change the name. Apparently Hunter – which is also the name of an old aircraft – is back in the top 100 names to give your child. An MG Hunter? Now that’s more like it.