VW’s smart delivery system? I’d give it the boot

TWO umbrellas, a book about MGs that I still haven’t got around to reading and – for work purposes, because I never know when I might need them – a couple of copies of Classic Car Weekly. That’s about as exciting as the contents of my car’s boot get.

But even they might have to be evicted if a bold new idea to revolutionise online deliveries takes off. For months they’ve been happy to slide around, bouncing off shopping bags and probably knocking a mile or two off what my Toyota does to the gallon, but they’ll have to go, and all because I can’t trust you. Not you specifically, of course – I’m sure you’re fine. I mean other members of the wider population, especially ones who I haven’t met. But VW expects you to trust them with whatever’s in your boot.

Europe’s biggest carmaker has been using Berliners as guinea pigs for its new We Deliver scheme – and says they loved it so much that it’s now looking to roll it out elsewhere, including here in the UK. The idea’s a simple one – if you’re going to be at work all day and you’re expecting a delivery, you can use your car’s boot as the delivery address. The delivery man can then find your car, use an app to open the boot, stick the parcel inside, and then hop back in his van. Brilliant!

Sorry to go all Dragons’ Den on you, but it’s fraught with problems. What if you’ve got something more valuable than two umbrellas and a book about MGs in the boot, and how do you prove it if an unscrupulous delivery man – perhaps one who’s getting rained on and wants to learn all there is to know about the MG Midget – helps himself to your stuff? There are genuinely people out there who get kicks out of nicking other people’s parcels, too. Will they, if everyone’s valuables are locked away in car boots, begin to attack parked cars? There’s also the small problem of cars having this nasty habit of moving from place to place – and why would I leave my car at home when I need it to get to work?

What’s more, I reckon it’s a bit of a halfway house anyway; with Britain going full tilt towards autonomous cars, I don’t think it’ll be too long before I can simply dispatch my self-driving Golf or Astra off to the depot on its own, where it can go collect my Amazon deliveries for me.

It’s a genuine problem, created by our insatiable appetite for cheap things that we can order online with next day delivery, but I don’t think turning all our cars into four-wheeled postboxes is the answer.

Personally, I much prefer the idea of having things I want delivered not via an internet-dispatched delivery man, but being made readily available in a set of buildings, situated in a nearby town or city centre, that are open throughout the week.

Call me old-fashioned, but that might catch on…

The new 4×4 hoping to out-Land Rover the Defender

THE NEW Defender is a proper Land Rover. Or is it?

Apologies if this sounds almost exactly like the opening to last week’s Life On Cars column, but it turns out that barely a week after it was announced that some blokes who met up in their local pub have announced their own equally no-frills off-roader. In fact, they’re so proud of their beverage-based flash of inspiration that they’ve actually named their new offering after it. I kid you not.

The Grenadier – the car, not the London watering hole famed for its whiskies and real ale – is apparently going to go on sale in 2021, so it’ll be at least a year behind the new Defender, but the chaps behind it are promising all sorts of Land Rover-ish things that farmers familiar with the old model will doubtless appreciate. Where the new Defender is going for more car-like monocoque construction for the first time, the Grenadier is sticking with an old-fashioned ladder frame chassis, which is simpler and easier to adapt to different bodystyles. It’ll have beam axles, permanent four-wheel-drive and a boxy, no-nonsense exterior. Sound familiar? Then there are the engines, which are being sourced from BMW in much the same way a certain other specialist in mud-pluggers used to do. Nor will there be any plug-in hybrids or zero emissions electric models – apparently, the car’s pale ale-swigging purveyors thought about it, but decided no-nonsense turbodiesels and petrols would do just fine, thanks.

Only said blokes, while they really did come up with the idea in the pub, aren’t overenthusiastic CAMRA members with a better grasp of Doom Bar than doomed British car designs. These chaps are not like all those tiny British sports car companies who attempt to take on Porsche with a budget of £12.50; nope, they all happen to work for a petrochemical company called Ineos, which is investing a not inconsiderable £600 million in the project. It also employs 22,000 people, and reckons it’ll take on about 500 more making the new off-roader. Three blokes nailing bits together in a shed this isn’t – and it’s pulled off a PR coup by announcing, just days after the Slovakian-built Defender was unveiled, that the Grenadier will be built right here, in Blighty (South Wales, since you’re asking).

But it’ll only out-Defender the Defender if it can get one crucial bit right; the price. Land Rover’s new offering starts at £45k in short-wheelbase 90 form, so the unapologetically unsophisticated Grenadier will have to start at a fraction of that to win over all those farmers, squaddies and forestry workers. That, I reckon, is the opening salvo in the most intriguing motoring battle in years.

All this from a couple of car nuts in a pub. Cheers!

The new Land Rover Defender still needs to pass the Ifor Williams test

IT’S A Kia Soul. It’s a Skoda Yeti. It’s a bloated pastiche of a British icon. And what the heck is that weird block in the rear window, anyway?

Actually, I quite like the new Land Rover Defender. I got the chance to have a proper look around it at last weekend’s Goodwood Revival, just a few days after its big debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show (although why a show dedicated to 1960s classic cars is being used to promote brand new off-roaders is another question entirely), and first impressions are… that it’s massive. The helpful folk at Solihull had stuck an old Series I next to it, and it was well and truly dwarfed by the new arrival.

But once you come to terms with its sheer stature and start looking at the little details, the more it looks and feels like a proper Landie. There’s a rather uncomfortable looking middle seat between the driver and front passenger – just like there was in my dad’s old One Ten – and where other purveyors of mud-pluggers treat the bodywork with garnishings of chrome-effect trim, the Defender’s got chunky swathes of unromantic plastic. Which is exactly what you want when you’re brushing past hedges on rutted farm tracks.

With the notable exception of the front windscreen, which I still think is a little too steeply raked, at first glance the new arrival does pull off what everyone thought was impossible; replacing an off-roader that’s been in production since 1983 with something that looks simultaneously modern and traditional. Obviously, it’s only fair to reserve final judgement until everyone starts driving it (preferably up a few muddy inclines), but I think we’ll only really know if the new Defender works once it’s out of the car shows and away from the flattering press shots of showroom-fresh examples being driven up mountains and across deserts.

Specifically, it needs to work when it’s shorn of its rear bodywork and fitted with an Ifor Williams aluminium canopy. Drive over the border into North Wales, go to somewhere like Denbigh or Llanrwst, and you’ll see Land Rovers in their purest form, invariably hauling sheep back and forth. There isn’t an alloy wheel, LED light or trendy paint job in sight here – spot a Defender here and it’ll almost always be painted in a drab, non-metallic shade that’s splattered with muck, kitted out on steel wheels and fitted with a canopy that’s covered in scratches. That’s how a Land Rover should look.

The new Defender has pulled off looking brilliant with an aplomb that’s managed to surprise just about everyone. But if it can pull off looking down-at-heel too, only then will we know if it’s replaced an icon. Best get busy if you work for Ifor Williams…

Mini prices have changed a lot in ten years – but this Champion column hasn’t

A LOT can happen in ten years.

Think back to what was happening back in September 2009. Gordon Brown was running the country, Dizzee Rascal was at number one and people were starting to get panicky about swine flu. Oh, and a motoring column popped up in The Champion for the first time, written by someone whose chief transport to our Lord Street offices was a rust-ridden Mini.

I re-read that first column the other day – which covers the tried ‘n’ tested petrolhead game of having a ten-car garage, but a budget of just £10,000 to fill it with – and it surprised just how much some of them have moved on in price. There’s no way, for instance, that you’d be able to pick up a Jaguar XJ6 Series III (even a really ropey one) for under a grand now; these days, you’d be looking at its Nineties equivalent, the X300, and you’d be better be prepared to tackle some rotten sills and tired electrics while you’re at it. The days of Fiat Coupés being readily available for buttons are gone too, and as much as there are still cheap Alfa 156 Sportwagons out there you’ll have a job finding one. Even the Renault 5 that I ran for a few months during this column’s early days has gone up in price – argue all you like about whether it’s a classic car yet, but simple market economics dictates that with the few people wanting one being greater than the number now on sale, you’ll struggle to get one for under a grand now.

But the one that’s more surprising to look back on than any other is the Mini I regularly needed Triple Plus Members’ Club Platinum Premium levels of breakdown cover for – I thought I’d done well selling that admittedly tired Mayfair for £800, but these days that wouldn’t even get you a non-running project. It would’ve been a bizarre thing to think back in 2009, but nowadays the cheapest route into Mini ownership is by picking up one of its flashier, BMW-engineered Noughties successors.

For all the talk of bloated Countryman models and pizza dish-sized speedometers I reckon it’s now a lot of car for the money, and the interesting thing is how big a part the 2001-on model played in the Mini’s 60th anniversary celebrations. I went to the International Mini Meeting in Bristol a few weeks ago and the newer models were absolutely everywhere, and the hostility that I remember from the Mini die-hards of only a few years ago seems to have subdued. It’s worth remembering too that the original Mini’s landmark 5.3m production run is set to be beaten by the BMW-engineered model at some point next year, so it’s not as though the nation hasn’t taken the new car firmly into its bosom.

You’d need the best £3-4k to pick up a decent classic Mini these days but play it smart and you can have a BMW-generation Cooper, with an MoT, for well under £750. I suspect it’d rather better at getting me to work in the mornings, too…

300mph in a road car should inspire a new generation of car nuts

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THERE are – surprise, surprise – very few individual cars that I’d pick as my specialist subject on Mastermind. Perhaps I could do a round on the places where Minis rot, seeing as my first car had all of them, or urban myths about the Austin Allegro. But that’s about it.

Unless, of course, John Humphrys were to quiz me on the McLaren F1, as I seem to have had most of its headline-grabbing facts hardwired into my brain from an early age. I can just imagine the studio lights being dimmed in preparation for the audience being bored rigid by a staccato succession of stats and trivia being fired back at John’s questions.

Deep breath. “232mph, revised to 241mph after another run with its rev limiter removed. Nought to sixty in 3.2 seconds. Nope, only the engine bay is lined with gold. Actually, its twin pannier lockers had more luggage space than a Ford Fiesta. Peter Stevens – who also styled the Jaguar XJR-15 and did the facelift for the Lotus Esprit. Nope, technically the BMW V12 was slightly overweight. But Gordon Murray didn’t mind too much, because it developed 627bhp, making it the fastest naturally aspirated engine ev…”

At this point I can imagine Mastermind being taken off the air as poor John keels over with sheer boredom, perhaps replaced by that old BBC test card of the girl posing next to the creepy-looking clown. I jest, but that gives you an idea of just how much an impression the McLaren F1 left on me in my earliest days at petrolhead school. It was, on account of it being a four-wheeled Concorde for the Nineties, one of those supercars that genuinely left a generation of car nuts in awe.

Which is exactly what I’m hoping Bugatti’s Chiron can now pull off. In much the same way that the F1’s biggest bit of pub trivia – being the fastest thing ever to need annual visits to an MoT testing station – was revised upwards by 9mph after a second high speed run in 1998, so the Chiron’s top speed of 261mph has been revisited after a gentle run this week with the electronic limiter removed. To 304mph, to be exact.

Normally I’m a bit dismissive of today’s supercars for being vapid Instagram fodder, normally driven around London on Middle Eastern numberplates by people too loaded to care about the parking fines, but when a roadgoing production car breaks the 300mph record for the first time, people tend to sit up and take note. I love the little bit extra, too – Le Mans winner and Bugatti test driver could have edged it to 300.00001mph, called it quits and then edged the Chiron back to reality, but he added an extra 4mph on for good measure. In much the same way Ferrari made headlines with its 201mph F40.

Why does any of this matter when there’s an average 50mph speed limit on the Tarleton bypass? Because it inspires people. There are engineers working at McLaren – and lots of other carmakers, and engineering firms – because they grew up with the F1 on their bedroom walls.

No one other than Bugatti’s top drivers are ever going to max a Chiron, but simply knowing that you can is going to inspire brilliant minds to bolt together something even better.

VW and Tesla – a match made in heaven?

ELON MUSK must be ecstatic. Having already conquered the world with Paypal, taken on NASA at the space exploration game and threatened to revolutionise mass transport with the brilliantly-named The Boring Company, he’s now got a new suitor. The world’s second biggest car company, no less.

That’s right, word on the street is that Volkswagen is interested in buying a stake in Tesla. Admittedly, Volkswagen hasn’t successfully shot one of its own cars into space but it has pulled off a few other tricks of its own – after selling 21 million Beetles and popularising the hot hatchback it’s gone on to snap up Audi, Porsche, SEAT, Skoda, Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini, along with superbike specialist Ducati and truck builder MAN. They’re behind only Toyota in the car-building stakes, and still on an upward trajectory. What’s more, they’re on the cusp of launching their own sub-brand, called ID, which focuses on zero emissions vehicles.

But owning Tesla – or at least, a bit of it – seems like an entirely smart move. Not only does it give VW access to all of the Californian start-up’s battery tech, which for years has been ahead of everyone else in the electric car game, but it also gives it access to all those Tesla-branded smart chargers you see at motorway service stations. The other day I called into Fleet Services on the M3 and saw a line of six of them sitting unused while Nissan LEAF and Mitsubishi Outlander owners were practically trading blows over the Ecotricity ones nearby, but if VW and Audi owners were able to use Tesla ones too in a few years’ time, it’d make more sense for everyone.

But I’d like to think the suits at VW are interested in what I think is something even more remarkable that’s potentially on the table; the creation of a brand’s street cred out of nowhere. Think about how long it’s taken Toyota to win over a generation of cynical Brits with Lexus, and yet in half the time there are now car mags urging you to go electric and buy a Model 3 over a 320d. The internet’s even invented its own term for someone prepared to defend Elon Musk’s offerings, even in the face of outright hostility from the rest of the motoring world – the Tesla Fanboy. That such a term – and the people behind it – exists at all just shows you how much currency the cars created by someone I’m still convinced is a real-life Bond villain have with today’s buyers.

Yet here’s the weird thing – Tesla, for all its trick gullwing doors, ability to defeat McLarens in drag races and to make cars that can drive themselves, is still struggling to make long-term profits. It’s moved the motoring game and brought us some very cool cars at the expense of….well, at the expense. So, in other words, it’s where Aston Martin was 30 years ago.

What it needs is the equivalent of the DB7 – a brilliant car that transforms the company, bankrolled by someone else. VW and Tesla, then, are a match made in heaven. Your move, Elon…

There’s only one problem with solar panels on a Hyundai Sonata – and it isn’t the solar panels

INITIALLY it sounds like one of those inventions you can’t believe hadn’t been thought up earlier, like the rotary washing line or wind-resistant umbrellas – but there are few issues with Hyundai’s new solar-assisted hybrid car.

Don’t get me wrong, as the new Sonata Hybrid is still a decidedly clever bit of kit. Beneath its bonnet you’ll find a two-litre, direct injection petrol engine, which is teamed up to an electric motor to do all the crawling through traffic in a zero emissions way that’ll please the Polar bears. So far, so-so, but it’s the flotilla of solar panels on the roof that are its party piece, charging up the battery while you’re at work.

Solar panels are, of course nothing new – my parents have practically covered the roof of their house with them, as have plenty of folk up and down the land in this era of Government-backed eco-friendly energy incentives. They aren’t even especially new in the motoring world either, as Nissan have for years offered one as an optional extra on the LEAF, which allows you to keep things like the stereo in action without draining its batteries. Hyundai’s real smart thinking here is that it scrounges off the sun to charge up its batteries directly, meaning that on a bright day the big shiny thing in the sky can charge anywhere between 30 and 60 per cent of the hybrid’s batteries up over six hours. Net result? You don’t spend as much at the pumps, and Greta Thunberg won’t be asking you to commute by horse instead.

I reckon Hyundai could even go the whole hog and apply it to an all-electric car rather than a hybrid; it’s already common practice on plenty of zero emissions models to give them a quick charge that tops the batteries up to around 80 per cent of their full capacity, so the idea of having some solar panels that take care of the remainder, using a free, renewable energy source seems like a smart solution. All of it, using today’s tech, is definitely doable.

Or at least it would be if it weren’t for the Sonata Hybrid’s biggest problem – it’s not going on sale here. I’d love to crack a joke at this point about our cold, miserable summers and overcast afternoons in Aughton scuppering its chances but I can’t, because it’s not going on sale in the south of Spain, where it’s permanently 30 degrees, or in the northernmost reaches of Scandinavia – home of the midnight sun – either. That’s got nothing to do with it being a solar-assisted hybrid car and everything to do with it being a Hyundai Sonata.

So, in other words, a BMW-sized saloon with a Hyundai badge – even Hyundai knows that’s a tricky sell, which is why it dropped the Sonata from its range in 2010, with the Mondeo-rivalling i40 doing a rather more commendable job of filling the gap instead. The new Sonata will go on sale in Korea, and in America, but Hyundai, quite sensibly, concluded that given the choice we Brits would still go for an Audi A4 or Jaguar XE instead.

But the story doesn’t end there – the Sonata won’t be joining us, but the clever tech almost certainly will, because it’s looking to roll it out on other models too. 

An i800 people carrier with the entire expanse of its vast roof decked out in solar panels? Sounds like a better plan than a rotary washing line, I reckon.

Why the Mercedes A-Class is a bit too clever for its own good

“IT LOOKS like you’re writing a column for The Champion. Can I help?”

Anyone even vaguely familiar with Clippy, the relentlessly cheery – and endlessly irritating – virtual assistant for Microsoft Word will know how I feel this week. Every time you tried even the simplest task, like opening your latest missive with “Dear”, would instantly be met with a bombardment of questions about exactly how you’d like to write a letter.

Thankfully Clippy was quickly marched into Bill Gates’ office and promptly issued with his P45 many years ago, but I’m beginning to wonder whether he’s since managed to get another job – this time, residing in the infotainment system of the latest Mercedes A-Class. I’ve just spent several hundred miles in the company of a mid-range A180d, but it felt more like a shift rather than a drive. When all of its considerable amount of in-car tech is up and running it might as well be a work station on wheels – perhaps with a photocopier and a water cooler in the corner – than a car.

Its pièce de résistance is a double-screen, interactive display that starts behind the steering wheel and runs right across to the centre of the dashboard and controls every function imaginable in the A-Class, from the cruise control to how much bass you’d like on the tunes being played through its Bluetooth connection. It is very cleverly engineered and I’m sure that if I spent about a month going through every sub-menu fiddling with the settings it would be fine-tuned to match every minute facet of my personality, but because I hadn’t – and because it was doing its best to try and guess them – it did make me wonder why Mercedes had given the important gig of running the A-Class to poor old Clippy.

Leaving a car park, for instance, does not require a feed from four car-mounted cameras to be instantly fired up – not when I have mirrors, windows and a moveable neck that can already do all of that. Nor do I want, when I’m squeezing through a tight gap, a collision warning system to chime in at the precise moment that I’m concentrating. It’s also not terribly intuitive to use – it’s controlled via the steering wheel, a touch screen and a sensor pad on the centre console, the latter of which is mounted right next to the cupholders. Which means you end up accidentally exiting the satnav when you grab your cup of coffee. It even has a wrist support to stop you getting repetitive strain injury. I’m used to these doing an eight-hour stint in an office, but in a car?

All of which meant I ended up doing what most Microsoft Word users did about 20 years ago – switching off Clippy altogether – and driving around with as much of the in-car tech as possible shut down. As soon as I did that I actually enjoyed the A-Class for what it really is – it’s beautifully built, decent to drive, a lot nicer to look at than the previous model and, in A180d form at least, equipped with a turbodiesel that delivers plenty of mid-range thump on motorways and dual carriageways.

I reckon it’s the best A-Class so far, once you let the engineering – rather than the tech – do the talking. Brilliant, I’ve made it to the end of this week’s column without Clippy chiming in!

“It looks like you’re signing off for another week. Can I hel…”

The solution to struggling high streets? More car shows

SORRY, Arriva and Stagecoach, but you’re just going to have to re-route Southport’s busiest bus routes. The heart of Birkdale village works so much better when it’s full of old Morgans and MGs.

That’s the conclusion I came away with after stopping off last Saturday for the Birkdale Village Summer Fayre – it had a fairly sizeable car display, which in itself is nothing unusual, but I’ve got to applaud the powers-that-be for being bold enough to shut off the bit of Liverpool Road right by the station to make it happen.

I’ve been to plenty of shows over the years where it’s the centre of a town or village itself that becomes the venue, as opposed to a nearby playing field or pub car park, and I know it takes a special sort of perseverance to make it happen. There’s a great show in Prestatyn which has been cordoning off key bits of prime North Wales shopping territory for its Bank Holiday show, and I know that closer to home the Ormskirk MotorFest has made the trick of shutting off the town’s one-way system its schtick.

In every instance the result’s the same; the place is jam-packed with people shuffling through for a closer look. People, who I’m delighted to report, also seemed to be cheerily assembled around the tables outside every restaurant, pub and café within a half-mile radius. I’m sure there’ll be a meeting of Birkdale’s various movers and shakers in the next few days and something vaguely official to confirm it, but I’d be amazed if all those families who duly hopped off Merseyrail’s finest for a closer look didn’t treat the village to one of its busiest trading days this year.

It’s good from a petrolhead perspective too; if you’re reading this there’s a sporting chance you’ll already know exactly what a 1949 Riley RMA looks like, but for me the real highlight was hearing all the assorted ooohs and ahhhs from folk who don’t. Same goes for the 1960 MGA parked up on the other side of Liverpool Road. If you’re a small child who’s been brought up on nothing but Kia Cee’ds then I can’t think of better-looking example of what proper cars, with delicate curves, chrome bumpers and rumbling exhaust notes, look and sound like.

I’d also like to share with you, in the interests of fair and balanced reporting, some of the views of the many people who enjoyed the 60 cars on show…but I can’t because I was too busy ogling the 1974 Lamborghini Espada that one of the exhibitors had brought along.

Any village centre that has an Espada – which is considerably cooler than any Countach or Diablo – in it has got to be worth visiting, so I reckon in the interests of supporting local businesses it should be made a permanent fixture. Apologies, bus users, you’ll just have to put up with being re-routed…

Electric isn’t the threat to classic cars – autonomous vehicles are

I MIGHT have to take an extended retreat on a mountain-top monastery and try and meditate my way out of having what – to a dyed-in-the-wool petrolhead – are clearly unholy thoughts. For a split second the other night, I thought buying an electric car might actually be a good idea.

They have, from the various ones I’ve tried, come a long way in barely a decade. If I was being sensible I might be tempted by a BMW i3, but if I wasn’t it’d be an emphatic yes to Renault’s Twizy. What’s more, either would make perfect sense on my current commute; a 20-mile drive to and from an office which, helpfully, already has charging points on site.

That’s the way the nation’s moving; for all those longer drives I do to North Wales and the remoter bits of Yorkshire I’m still very much an advocate of internal combustion, but for an increasingly large swathe of the population it’s getting ever easier to go all-electric, especially with unleaded nudging £1.30 a litre.

But that’s not the worry I had for a classic owner who wrote to me the other day, pondering what implications Britain’s lunge towards zero emissions motoring had for his Jaguar Mk2. For me, it’s autonomous vehicles, not electric ones, that pose the biggest challenge.

Again, these are getting better every year, but until you remove humans and their awkward habit of making irrational, last-minute decisions out of the equation, you’re still going to get crashes. Logically, the only way to do that is to have autonomous-only roads – a sort of Docklands Light Railway for cars, if you like – where cars that don’t have that driver-free capability can no longer roam.

There are no plans from the Department for Transport to do this, but it’s already looking at technology that’s pointing in that direction, the most obvious being smart motorways that beam traffic information straight onto digital displays on car dashboards. The EU’s already mandated that new cars from 2022 onwards will have speed-limiting tech pre-installed. Even in an all-electric world it isn’t hard to imagine a scenario where people with classic cars would still be able to get petrol from somewhere, but I dread the day when they’re confronted with roads they’re no longer allowed to use.

What’s more – and I know this is a hugely indulgent, selfish thing to admit in our bid to become a cleaner, greener, safer Britain ­– I like driving. Not thrashing a car to within an inch of its life, but taking a great car, learning all of its little facets and characteristics, and exploring our wonderful country with it. Seeing quaint buildings in villages you didn’t know about. Stopping off at canal-side pubs on summer evenings just for the hell of it. And yes, pondering whether the Jaguar Mk2 is better in 3.4-litre form is actually somehow more satisfying and better balanced than the 3.8-litre one, even though prices still suggest everyone’s after the latter.

These are the sort of things you just can’t do if you pre-program your destination into an autonomously-guided electric pod – no matter how good an idea they might briefly seem. Think carefully, chaps in Whitehall…