Opinion

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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Why the Wheeler Dealers Escort Cosworth resto will have you hooked

The Ford Escort RS Cosworth is the first car to be tackled by the new Wheeler Dealers duo

I’M NOT sure if it’s possible to hack into someone’s Sky Plus box but you’d find nothing particularly shocking if you raided mine.

There’s the new series of Red Dwarf, a couple of episodes of Robot Wars and – guilty pleasure time – an ace documentary I recorded a couple of years ago about the making of Thunderbirds. In London media bubble speak it’s all on message content for my target demographic – in other words, the sort of stuff you’d expect a thirtysomething bloke to watch. Except the Harry Potter. That’s my wife’s. Honest!

But what you won’t find much of is motoring telly. Of course there are old episodes of Top Gear and James May’s excellent Cars of the People but the truth is that when you work with cars all day it’s very hard to sit back and find automotive telly that’s genuinely enjoyable. A reality show about some Americans swearing at a rusty Ford in a workshop – and there are many – just doesn’t really cut it.

The new series of Wheeler Dealers, however, just might. Last Saturday I got the chance to watch the first episode ahead of its January 2018 launch, and the new on-screen partnership between presenters Mike Brewer and Ant Anstead really works. Even my wife – who prefers watching Harry Potter, remember – thought it was truly watchable petrolhead telly.

The show’s opening episode already had me at “Hello” because it chronicles the purchase and restoration of one of my favourite cars, a Ford Escort RS Cosworth, but it’s the way that Ant makes the nerdy technical bits feel weirdly accessible that really drew me in. There’s a lovely scene where he strips a turbocharger down to its nuts and bolts, but explains everything in the sort of language even Donald Trump could understand. There are charmingly hand-drawn diagrams on blackboards too, just in case you think a wastegate is something the binmen use to collect your recyclables.

There’s something compelling about the pair’s on-screen banter too – even if you loved the show when it was Mike Brewer and Edd China it’s hard not to find the new partnership effective, because it’s still a show fronted by two blokes who really love – and know a thing or two about – old cars. My only grumble is that it still feels like a show aimed at America first (so Donald Trump definitely WILL understand), but on the opening episode alone I reckon Wheeler Dealers is onto a winner.

It’s made it onto my Sky Planner, put it that way!

The Toyota Avensis has aged better than most Nineties institutions

No matter which generation you go for the Avensis offers dependable - if not terribly exciting - motoring.jpg

WHAT were you doing back in 1998? Chances are if you weren’t listening to Aqua CDs or scrawling on the France ’98 wall chart you got free with The Champion then you’d have been busy fiddling with your Nokia 3210. For such a recent bit of our illustrious history it’s beginning to feel like a very long time ago.

So you’d expect a car from that era to feel positively Palaeolithic by today’s exacting standards of Bluetooth, infotainment consoles and adaptive cruise control, but the S-registered Toyota Avensis I’ve been running around in for the last few months doesn’t. Unlike the flyweight two-seaters I normally run around in this four-door slab of Japanese (albeit Derbyshire-built) anonymity does absolutely nothing to raise the pulse, but on a cold, rainy day there’s a lot to be said for a quiet, repmobile that just starts up and does everything in a discreetly and free of drama. Not bad for something that you can pick up these days for well under a grand.

It is so quietly accomplished that I’ve let it crack on with all the dull jobs without barely warranting a mention here before – but when I ended up being chucked the keys to its 2017 equivalent last weekend I couldn’t help comparing the two. The winner in this case is definitely the Avensis – but I just wasn’t sure which one.

To join the class of 2017 – in this case the mid-range Business Edition, equipped with Toyota’s torque-rich 1.6-litre turbodiesel – you need £22,855, and in return you get plenty of gadgets and safety features that my Mk1 model can only dream of. It’s still very much an Avensis in that does everything in a quiet and not terribly exciting way, but the clearest indication of two decades’ worth of progress is just how much quieter it is. The older car’s not exactly raucous by any means, but the latest Avensis makes you feel like you’ve pressed the ‘mute’ button on entire motorways. As long as you don’t put your foot down it is eerily silent.

It’s also smoother, sharper through the bends and far roomier on the inside. The latest Avensis comes out on top in just about every aspect but you’d be surprised at how well the Nineties original copes with the competition – not bad for a car that costs just a grand, remember. It’s the same with all the big family cars from the turn of the century. Find a good one that’s been looked after and it’ll be just as good a companion as a brand new one.

Certainly it’s a better slice of 1998 nostalgia than digging out that dusty Nokia out from its cupboard. And we’ll give the Aqua CDs a miss…

Even one of these would struggle to fit into most of the garages I’ve seen lately

Even this would struggle to fit into some of the so-called garages our motoring man has seen recently

I’VE SPENT the last few weekends trawling the classifieds and the obscurely written online ads, followed up by the inevitable phone calls and bartering over prices. Only it isn’t cars I’ve been looking at this time.

After scrimping and saving for what feels like an eternity I’m finally looking to grow up a bit and get on the property ladder. Obviously I’m looking for something that isn’t going to fall apart after six months and isn’t located four hours away from the office, but the added complication of being a petrolhead and a classic car owner means I’m also looking for something that seems to have slipped off the radar as far as the rest of the property market’s concerned.

Yes, I want a garage. They used to use these quaint old facilities back in the days of Pathe newsreels for the storage of your grandad’s Morris 1000, but in 2017 you might as well be asking for the property to come with an outside bog and a front parlour. Which means that virtually every “garage” I’ve been to see has been anything but.

One  I looked at had an extended living room built across its front half, meaning its entrance had effectively been reduced to three feet wide. Another had been converted into a music room, complete with layers of soundproofing on every wall. Brilliant for attacking a Triumph Dolomite’s undersides with an angle grinder without ever annoying the neighbours, or at least it would’ve been had the entire front end not been bricked up and finished off with a standard, person-sized door. My particular favourite was a promising up-and-over door that lifted to reveal a garage that met a concrete wall four feet later, making the Little Tikes Cozy Coupe just about the only car capable of fitting inside. On the other side of that wall was a gym, just in case you’re interested.

But what united each and every one of the homeowners was their genuinely perplexed reaction when I told them what I wanted to use a garage for – surely you’d have to be INSANE to put a car inside, wouldn’t you? Why would you want to waste all those exercise facilities and recording studios on somewhere to store a vehicle?

I’ve genuinely lost count of the hours I’ve spent going to look at houses advertised as having garages that are anything but. I appreciate that even the newer ones are going to struggle accommodating something like a Nissan Qashqai, but they should be able to swallow something sensibly-sized without the need to knock down concrete walls. Is it wrong to expect anything less of a garage?

I’m so cross about it that I might actually construct a mood room in my new house where I can rant about the subject in peace. Obviously, I know just the place to put it…

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…

Toyota, thank you for making the Century so bonkers

The Toyota Century is brilliant - but unlikely to make it to the UK

THE GREATEST car you’ve never heard of has just been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. But you wouldn’t know it just by looking at it.

The Toyota Century is that awkward relative who cracks awful jokes, dances badly at weddings and dresses like Alan Partridge. It is, with its ridiculous V12 engine and gaudy ‘70s Lincoln looks, the Monkey Tennis of motoring. Which is precisely why I’ve always found Japan’s most extravagant bit of automotive engineering so weirdly endearing.

But now the awkwardly outdated wedding guest has been given some snappy new clothes and been informed that Taylor Swift is a pop starlet, not a brand of caravan. Well sort of, because while the new model’s been given an eco-conscious hybrid powerplant in favour of the old V12, Toyota’s also insisting that it has “a simple and modern aesthetic”. Which it doesn’t.

Not that I (or any of the Century’s customers, for that matter) care remotely. In a world full of me-too sports activity vehicles and drearily understated executive saloons there is something wonderfully refreshing about a brand new saloon that looks exactly like a car that Huggy Bear would drive.

It’s aimed at the sort of people who’d normally go for an S-Class or an Audi A8 but it’s also the only luxury offering that eschews leather seats (although you can still order them) in favour of wool-trimmed thrones. There’s also an LCD panel that allows the managing director to control all the interior settings – including those for the driver’s seat – while slouching in the rear seat. That’s exactly the sort of unapologetic luxury that you just wouldn’t get in a 7-Series.

Toyota has absolutely no plans to bring it to the UK, partly because it’d trod of the toes of the Lexus LS, an equally lavish saloon developed by the same manufacturer that just happens to look like it belongs in 2017. But it’s good to know that when it isn’t churning out Prius hybrids the world’s biggest car manufacturer has something genuinely a bit bonkers up its sleeve.

I really hope the new Century’s a raging success because it’ll prove that there’s a market for luxury waftmobiles that look they belong in the late 1970s. Hopefully it’ll encourage Jaguar to get on with making a new version of its Daimler Double Six Vanden Plas. Just a thought…

Jaguar Land Rover has a great opportunity right under its nose

Currently the Jaguar Land Rover range starts with the XE saloon

WHAT’S your worst nightmare? Perhaps it’s giving an important work seminar wearing nothing but a bikini – even though you’re a bloke – or being locked inside a hi-fi shop overnight with every stereo system set to play Justin Bieber’s greatest hits on repeat, ad nauseam.

For me it’s trying to explain Jaguar Land Rover’s plans for world domination to someone who doesn’t understand cars. The Jaguar stuff’s fairly simple – you start with the wonderful XJ, replicate in slightly smaller sizes and then chuck in a two-seater sports car for good measure, but I’m completely lost when it comes to Land Rover. There’s no Land Rover-shaped Land Rover any more, a Discovery that looks just like a Range Rover Evoque, and a big Discovery that’s now tremendously ugly. Then there’s the Range Rover, but it’s accompanied by another Range Rover that obsesses over Nurburgring lap times and looking good outside footballers’ homes, a really small Range Rover that now looks a bit like a Land Rover Discovery Sport, and the Velar, which sits somewhere between the two.

All of which hurts my head (and probably yours) slightly. So rumours that JLR’s looking to expand its range of offerings even further are going to have me reaching for the Nurofen.

The manufacturer’s Indian bosses are reportedly thinking about snapping up another brand to boost its luxury offerings, with everything from Aston-Martin to MG under consideration. Even Jeep’s been linked to a potential deal, although this would be a bit like Liverpool snapping up Arsenal.

Then there’s serious consideration apparently being given to launching what’s being dubbed the ‘Road Rover’, which would be a sort of tarmac-orientated twin to Land Rover’s current offerings.  All of which would make it… a Rover, surely?

Rover would be a great name to bring back. If VW can successfully turn Skoda from the butt of motoring jokes to a champion of sensibly-priced family cars, how hard can it be to turn an (admittedly tarnished) British brand back into the luxury name known for cars like the P5 and P6? BMW so nearly did it with the 75 but famously bottled it in 2000. Jaguar Land Rover, with its clever engineering and healthy cashflow, might just crack it.

Admit it – a properly engineered Rover with wood, leather and some Jaguar-esque tech beneath the skin really wouldn’t be a bad thing. Better than presenting that work seminar in a bikini, anyway…

Alfa Romeo hasn’t beaten BMW with the Giulia, but it has won my heart

The Giulia is the first rear-wheel-drive Alfa Romeo saloon in 25 years

THAT distant noise you can hear is the sound of Alfa Romeo’s Giulia depreciating in value. Or perhaps it’s the sound of interior trim creaking uncomfortably during repeated use.

Or – and I reckon this is a tad more accurate – it’s the gentle groan of people who’ve grown up with Alfas of the past expecting the new arrival to be just as fragile. I can see where they’re coming from; I drove a 1990s GTV6 last year and spent the entire outing wondering what would’ve happened had Milan put as much effort into its interior as it did its V6s. But I didn’t care how squeaky the trim was, because the three litres of chrome-garnished opera up front sounded utterly enchanting.

Whereas the engine in the Giulia I tried didn’t. I’m aware that you can order Italy’s latest 3-Series basher with a twin-turbo, 503bhp monster of a V6 but the version most people are likely to be punting up an outside lane near you is the 2.2-litre turbodiesel, which below 3000rpm isn’t quite as refined as its Audi or BMW equivalents. But put your foot down and the clatter’s quickly replaced by impressive mid-range shove. In 188bhp form it’s an impressively brisk, if not lightning quick, motorway companion.

It’s also the first Alfa saloon in a quarter of a century to send its oomph to the rear wheels – the right wheels, if you want to enjoy driving a big saloon – and the end result’s a car that really lets you revel in its delicately set-up steering and suspension on the right road. It does an accomplished job of devouring A-roads, but the 3-Series is a tiny bit better.

Which is where the Giulia does a fine job of messing up my own verdict – because the BMW is a tiny bit better not just at cornering, but at virtually everything. The Alfa has B-pillars so vast that they make checking your blind spots very hard work, anyone hopping into the rear seats inevitably smacks their scalp on the low roofline, and the German offering is more likely to hold onto its value.

But I’ve never walked away from a 3-Series and given it a lingering second glance, which you do with the Giulia because it is an achingly pretty car. Just like the old 156 and 159 were.

The BMW’s clearly the better car in the same way that Birmingham’s a perfectly sensible place to live. But given the choice I’d have a cottage in the Lake District any day – and a Giulia parked outside, naturally.

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…