Astra

You don’t need a Porsche to make motoring fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The big surprise about driving a massive van

The extended Vauxhall Movano David used dwarfs other vans

PLEASE don’t tell me what Chris Harris has been powersliding lately. Or what car that bloke from Friends has been bigging up. The world’s biggest car show is back on our screens – but I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet.

When Top Gear returned to the nation’s living rooms last Sunday night I’d only just settled into mine after moving house, which means that as I write any means of watching it was still sealed neatly away in cardboard boxes. It’s funny how relocating forces you to live on the bare basics. No seeing The Stig drifting BMW M3s for me, then.

But what I did get to do was add another motoring superlative to my repertoire during the house move, because the massively extended Vauxhall Movano I used for the job is easily the biggest vehicle I’ve ever been given the keys to.

There doesn’t seem to be an official term for it but the rental firm that entrusted it to me refers to it as a Maxi load, although it’s about as far from the old British Leyland hatchback as Donald Trump is from a sensibly written tweet. It’s a bit bigger, and considerably longer, than a normal Luton van, which means that once you get behind the three seats you have a load area that’s bigger than a typical student flat.

As a result its road presence is vast. Yet it’s all uncannily normal to drive.

Once you get used to what feels like a precariously high driving position – from the helm of a Maxi load you’re looking down on Range Rovers and workmen in Ford Transits – it feels like you could be driving the latest Astra. The steering’s a little vague but it’s light and does everything you ask of it, the six-speed manual does a fine job of keeping the 2.3-litre turbodiesel in check and it’ll tootle along at 60mph while barely breaking a 2000rpm sweat. The fact it can do all this while conveying an entire three-bedroom house’s contents and not creak at the seams, I reckon, is truly remarkable.

The only thing you’ve got to watch out for is just how generous its proportions are; I thought it’d be the width that’d catch me out but in fact it’s the lengthy stroll between the front and rear axles that kept me on my toes throughout my weekend with it. But once you get used to thing it’s surprising how something so enormous can feel so reassuringly normal.

I don’t think the Movano Maxi load will ever earn itself a mention on Top Gear, but in its own unapologetically useful way it’s just as impressive.