Opinion

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

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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.

Why I reckon motoring TV is about to change

NEVER has the sale of a secondhand tent seemed quite so emotional.

If you haven’t watched the last episode of The Grand Tour yet(and you don’t mind forking out for Amazon Prime) then you might want to put your copy of The Champion down for an hour, watch it and then come back, because it’s really worth catching up with. In a nutshell, the motoring telly giant that was the Clarkson/Hammond/May trio came to an end – except it sort of didn’t.

After an extended piece bemoaning the Ford Mondeo’s steady slide from the top of the car sales charts a genuinely emotional Jeremy announced that there would be no shows involving him taking the mickey out of the latest motors alongside his two mates in front of a studio audience, either for The Grand Tour or back on Top Gear. An extended montage of what they’d been up to on both shows followed – including everything from Richard Hammond’s many crashes to the Reliant Robin space shuttle – duly followed, giving the trio’s work the sort of send off a certain incident involving cold meat and a late night at a hotel a couple of years ago denied them.

The only snag is that it was all much ado about nothing, because the three of them then went on to say they are going to carry on working together on The Grand Tour, albeit in a new format that focuses solely on their big globe-trotting adventures. Read between the lines, though, and I reckon that there’s a wider truth; that the studio-based school of motoring telly they pioneered is finally on the way out.

I’ve written before that a lot of Top Gear now feels tired trying to hang on to elements popularised more than 15 years ago and that I’ve already predicted the next series, fronted by two celebs who aren’t practised motoring writers, is going to be awful. Which is a shame, because the one that’s just finished was one of the best yet, and that includes comparing it to ones presented by the old trio.

But in a streaming-obsessed world where you can watch everything on demand simply rocking up in an old aircraft hanger and then packing in an audience around a few strategically-parked supercars just seems a bit, well, a bit old hat now. I’ll happily predict that Top Gear will eventually follow suit and go for a rethink in a few years’ time, and might even be parked up altogether.

Saying that about a car show that I’ve grown up with, from crackly early Nineties episodes of a fuzzy-haired Clarkson moaning about mid-sized Vauxhalls to Chris Harris doing balletic mid-corner routines in McLarens, is a bitter pill to swallow, but I also loved Top of the Pops and Tomorrow’s World, and the world moved on from both of those too. Personally, my own prediction is that the massive motoring juggernauts that are Top Gear and The Grand Tour won’t be replaced by something equally big but several slicker, smaller shows, covering exactly what you want, when you want. Petrolhead paradise on demand. My vote’s with a show packed with old TVRs and Morgans.

I could be completely wrong of course. Maybe no-one wants to buy a secondhand tent and, stuck with it, they’ll have a rethink of the rethink…

The Ford Puma is a 1990s classic, not a boring crossover

FORGET Piers Morgan. Forget endless rolling news about Brexit. In fact, forget all of the Saturday night talent shows, vapid shopping channels and Love Island. The one thing that really, really annoys me on TV are adverts that use rubbish remakes of hit songs I grew up with.

So far, I’ve counted Everybody Wants to Rule The World, The Power of Love and Somewhere Only We Know ruined by slowed-down, breathy-voiced cover versions of the kind popularised by the John Lewis festive ads, but the one that’s really got my goat is the Lloyds ad with all the horses running down the beach. Not because it has over-indulgent amounts of equine-themed feelgood factor, but because it takes Olive’s excellent 1997 dance hit You’re Not Alone, and ruins it. A part of my formative years – and a UK number one, don’t forget – utterly trashed because someone thought a commercially-minded makeover was a cracking idea.

So it goes with the Ford Puma. For the first time in 18 years you’ll be able to buy a brand-new car bearing that name from showrooms across the North West, but don’t for a moment think it’s going to be a small, two-door coupe with various bits borrowed from the Fiesta. Not a chance, because the new Ford Puma is a five-door crossover.

Stuart Rowley, Ford’s top man in Europe, reckons we’ll love it. “Innovatively engineered and seductively styled, we think Puma is going to really resonate with compact-car customers in Europe,” he told car nuts when it was first announced. “If you want a car that can turn heads on Friday night, and swallow your flat-pack furniture with ease on Saturday afternoon, then you’ve found it.”

He’s bang on, of course. If the number of people buying Nissan Jukes is anything to go by, people are going to love it, and unlike its 1997 namesake the new car really will laugh in the face of a trip to IKEA. Chances are it isn’t going to suffer from crusty rear arches or steering wheels with disintegrating trim five years down the line, either – but the telling thing is that Ford’s own press release on the new Puma made precisely zero references to the original.

I’ve no doubt that it will be fun to drive, effortlessly practical and – thanks to its hybrid tech – kind to the environment, but couldn’t they have picked another name? To me, and a lot of other people who really love cars, the Puma is all about zingy, Yamaha-tuned engines, beautifully balanced suspension and cramming your mates into some tiny back seats. It had styling by the same chap who did the Aston Martin DB7, but it was buttons to buy, run and insure. It was, like the song from the Lloyds ad, a timeless classic.

Only now it’s been given the breathy-voiced cover treatment. I’m sure the new car will be a fantastic Ford, but a Puma? I’ll stick with the original, thanks.

The real threat of EU speed limiters is to older cars

BACK to the Future might have ended a bit differently had Doc Brown ventured a few years further. Rather than only time-travelling as far as the heady, pre-Brexit days of 2015 and returning with a flying DeLorean capable of running on household waste, he might have found himself dealing with EU-mandated speed limiters instead.

It would have been a fairly rubbish ending, with our time-travelling star stuck in the 2020s because it’s no longer allowed to power up to 88mph (although it would’ve spared everyone the third film, which perhaps isn’t such a bad thing). Yet for all the hysteria you might have read in the tabloids about new cars having their velocity vetoed by Euro-approved intelligent tech, I reckon the real risk to the cars we know and love today lies much further down the line.

There is a lot in the European Commission’s rules for new cars post-2022 that make sense. Would I have a drowsiness-detecting sensor jolt the driver in the other lane back into action, rather than him drifting into my path? Most definitely. Help with braking in emergencies and better seatbelts? I’m down with that. There are suggestions too for tech that prevents you from driving if you’re plastered, which is long overdue.

It’s not the principle of the tech that troubles me, but the logistics. If all cars in a decade’s time have their speed controlled intelligently, then there has to be some sort of communication between their internal electronic trickery and whatever roadside gantry is beaming the signals out. This isn’t the stuff of Tomorrow’s World, as it was trialled down in Kent last year, but if you want to drive something older than a brand-new Audi you might find you’re at a disadvantage – or not allowed altogether.

Put it this way – I spent last weekend driving around in a 29-year-old Mitsubishi which, with a bit of TLC, could probably reach the same age again. It saves all the environmental grief of making a brand-new car from scratch, but because an electric sunroof and a radio/cassette is about the height of its gadgetry it would be a nightmare to retrofit with intelligent speed limiters and data recorders. The long-term risk is that it, and thousands of older cars cherished by their owners for all sorts of reasons, won’t be allowed onto our increasingly smart roads because they’re too analogue.

The challenge for the powers-that-be is working out how to move with the times without inadvertently legislating all of our Triumph TR4s, our MG Midgets and – in my case – our 29-year-old Mitsubishis off the roads.

Otherwise I’ll be asking Doc Brown if I can hitch a ride.

Why the Ford Probe is finally a classic car

I’M NOT sure if Gareth Cheeseman – the egocentric salesman character created by Steve Coogan years ago – reads The Champion,but he’ll be delighted by this week’s revelation if he does. The Ford Probe is a classic car.

Yes, the Ford Probe. Remember it? It was the Nineties’ belated follow-up to the Capri, but for all sorts of reasons it never really caught on in the same way that the automotive star of The Professionals did. After just three years and a little over 15,000 sales it was quietly dropped in the UK, making way for the Mondeo-based Cougar that arrived just a few months later. That was way back in 1997, but 22 years on the Probe seems to get an excitable flurry of likes and retweets every time it pops up online.

In many ways it was entirely the wrong car to follow up the Capri – it was front-wheel-drive, so any cheeky opportunities of getting the tail out on wet roundabouts were dashed from the off, and its TV appearances with the aforementioned Cheeseman on the excellent Coogan’s Run killed its street cred in an instant. It also arrived just as two-door coupés were all the rage, so it had a lot of competition; not just from obvious rivals like Vauxhall’s Calibra, but real eye-grabbers like the Alfa GTV and Fiat Coupé too.

But look at one now, when there are fewer than 500 left on the UK’s roads – making it a far rarer beast than the Capri – and with Nineties nostalgia all the rage, and there’s something really compelling about it. For starters, if you get the 24-valve version you have a silky, 2.5-litre V6 beneath the bonnet, delivering mid-range torque in a way that the turbocharged three-cylinder engines of today just can’t match. For me, the thing I love about the Probe is the way it looks, with those full-width rear lights and concept car profile. And pop-up headlights, of course. Any car with pop-up headlights is, I’ve always thought, automatically cool simply on account of having them. Why can’t we bring them back?

The Probe might have had a silly name, an unfortunate on-screen fan and the misfortune of following a motoring cult hero, but I reckon its time has finally come. I’m just glad that Instagram – rather than Gareth Cheeseman – seems to agree.

Aston Martin Rapide E – licensed to be sensible

SPOILER alert – by which I don’t mean the enormous thing you’ll find sprouting from the back of Honda’s Civic Type R. The next Bond movie is the one where 007 finally settles down for a lifetime of school runs and trips to Sainsbury’s.

Forget any rumours you might have read about the next cinematic outing for Britain’s top MI6 operative being a modern-day retelling of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Or that its working title, Shatterhand, alludes to a SPECTRE mastermind previously only mentioned in the books and thus sets Bond up for a showdown with Blofeld’s right-hand man. Nope, the 25th film in the series is the one where 007, having chatted up Madeleine Swann in the last movie, gets married, takes her on a honeymoon to Prestatyn and they have kids a year or two later. Awwww, Daniel Craig’s take on the orphaned assassin has finally grown up!

I know this not because I’ve got pals at Pinewood Studios, but simply on the choice of car that’ll he be driving in the next film. Elsewhere in the press you might have read about how the new Aston Martin Rapide E is the first time that a 00-agent has been assigned a zero emissions car – nothing wrong with that, of course – but the thing that grabs me that, no matter how cool it looks, it’s a four-door saloon.

A four-door saloon. It’s only the second time in the entire history of the Bond films that’s happened, and on the last occasion it was an Avis-rented BMW that Pierce Brosnan promptly did the right thing to by sending it straight off the top of a multi-storey car park. The fact that 007’s next set of wheels is an Aston Martin, of course, is entirely right. But why does Bond need an extra set of doors? Has he been told that the Ministry of Defence, due to ongoing budget cuts, is insisting on car-sharing with colleagues and that from now on, he’s going to have to give 004, 006 and 009 lifts to their next missions?

I know that Aston Martin is very keen to, er, plug its first all-electric model on the big screen but James Bond is the sort of bloke with no need for a big boot and decent rear legroom – in other words, he needs the newly-launched Vantage, which thanks to its Mercedes-sourced, twin-turbo V8 is not only more sensibly reliable than the Astons of old but looks the part and sounds great too. It has room for our plucky Brit, a femme fatale, some concealed weaponry and nothing else. Now that’s a Bond car.

That’s why I can only assume that Bond’s married-with-children in the next film, because the Rapide’s more B&Q than Q-branch. That, or they’ve picked completely the wrong car.