Avensis

Don’t panic about snow – learn to drive on it!

More should be done to prepare motorists for coping with snowy conditions

THIS TIME last week there was a joke doing the rounds in the bars of Helsinki about our recent spate of bracing weather.

The English called the weather front, on account of it sweeping across the North Sea straight from the chillier bits of Russia, The Beast From The East. The Dutch dubbed it The Siberian Bear. Even the Swedes got a bit over-excited and labelled it The Snow Cannon. But the Finns called it… Wednesday.
It’s a bit of a harsh observation, but when it comes from a country that’s produced seven world rally champions there is an element of truth in it. We Brits just aren’t too hot at coping with extreme cold.
I can understand the schools closing for the day and the train operators finding things a bit tricky – but all those warnings about not travelling unless it’s absolutely necessary rang a bit hollow. Okay, so horsepower hedonists like me who venture out simply because it’s fun had to hang fire on getting their MX-5s and M3s out for a few days, but everyone else who’s vaguely normal only ever travels because it’s necessary. You might be lucky enough to work from home or to have a boss nice enough to deem your drive in non-essential, but for the rest of us we’re on the roads not to be annoying, but because we have to be.
Which is why there really ought to be more emphasis on learning what to do when you have to go out in the snow, so you don’t have to stay in and listen to people on the news telling you how treacherous it is out there. If you woke up to a genuine ten-foot high snowdrift than fair enough, but you’d be surprised at how far you can get on the white stuff in a car that isn’t a Land Rover Discovery if you drive sensibly. Even on quiet roads that hadn’t been gritted my 20-year-old Toyota Avensis managed to cope admirably, and one pal of mine managed to overcome just about everything in a Fiat Cinquecento. Neither had chunky winter tyres or fancy traction control systems – but they did have decent rubber, a lack of weight and some careful driving in their favour.
But far too few drivers I encountered during Snowmageddon seemed completely clueless about what to do when you get that horrible moment when the steering goes light on an icy patch or what to do when the back end snaps out of line on a slippery bit of snow. I’m not suggesting that we’re sent on weekend breaks to Finland to learn how to drive a Mitsubishi Evo VIII rally car on a frozen lake to sharpen up our skills (although I’d be more than happy to volunteer!), but I’m sure that equipped with some snow-driving knowledge the recent conditions wouldn’t have been as ominous.
Let’s stop panicking about the snow and learn to drive on it instead. Then the Finns might stop taking the mickey out of us…
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So what if the Fiat Punto is a bit 2005? We already knew that

The Fiat Punto is based on a design originally introduced in 2005.jpg

IT’S THAT time of year again; yep, the one where you encourage an elderly bloke you’ve never met to wobble around on your icy rooftop in the middle of the night, having helped themselves to several glasses of sherry. What could possibly go wrong?

Assuming our red-jacketed chum manages to do all his festive deliveries without slipping and plunging into some poor soul’s back garden there’s a fair chance we’ll have a few presents to open on Christmas morning. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of you unwrapping Star Wars merchandise and shiny smartphones, but I think I can safely predict that even the richest of festive recipients won’t be getting a lovely new Fiat Punto as a present.

That’s largely because – despite Fiat’s efforts to jazz it up over the years – it is a 12-year-old design, meaning it comes from an era when watching Lost and having the Crazy Frog as your ringtone were all the rage. So you’d have to be a brave buyer to go for one over a much newer Fiesta, Corsa or Polo.

We already know that the Punto is looking a bit ancient – which is why Euro NCAP’s decision to put it through a crash test it’s already conducted has left the car world a bit baffled. The safety boffins have made a fairly big deal about the fact it failed to score a single star in its safety test in a world where five is the norm these days. It’s a product that is well past its best-before date, at the expense of the unsuspecting car buyer. Not my words, but Euro NCAP’s.

Anyone who remembers what happened when the Rover 100 picked up a dismal score will know that this might as well be the kiss of death for Italy’s favourite supermini – but it’s worth remembering that in 2005 the same generation of Punto picked up a five-star safety rating. So which is right, and where does it leave all of us who can’t afford to drive brand new cars?

It’s laudable that Euro NCAP wants to raise the bar when it comes to safety but retesting an existing model and giving it a completely different rating runs the risk of rendering all the other old results meaningless. I’m sure all of you out there driving about in Fiat Puntos – or just about any other car over about three years old – must be thrilled. Why not just set a benchmark for all cars to achieve and keep it there, so it’s easy for normal people to understand how much safer cars are getting?

I’m looking forward to driving home for Christmas in my three-star Toyota Avensis. Which is either a car with decent – but not brilliant – safety, or a deathtrap so dangerous I might as well wobble around on an icy rooftop afterwards.

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…

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…

Why drive-in cinemas are more relevant than you think

Why drive-in cinemas are more relevant than you think.jpg

ELECTRICALLY adjustable leather seats, massive cupholders, automatic air con and speakers so powerful they can wake the dead. It’s amazing how much cinemas have come on these days.

Going out to catch a movie increasingly involves levels of luxury you’d normally find in a Mercedes or Jaguar showroom – but then you also need a Jaguar-sized budget to pay for it.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that I can remember putting up with nasty fold-out chairs and sticky floors to catch Jumanji in Southport’s old ABC cinema, but then the entire experience came in at under a fiver. Fast forward to today’s multiplexes and stocking up on two adult tickets and snacks can cost four or five times that.

Which is why I was intrigued to try an alternative last weekend. The future of watching films isn’t Netflix – it involves going back to the 1950s. Drive-in cinemas, to be exact.

The one I tried out costs £25 per car. Expensive if you’re travelling alone, but rock up in an MPV rammed with youngsters and it’s a bargain night out. Comfort depends entirely on your choice of wheels, and while I can now confirm that an S-registered Toyota Avensis is not as comfy as the premium seats at your nearest multiplex you can talk as loudly as you like without annoying anyone else watching the movie.

The only downside is the sound. Anyone old enough to remember proper drive-in cinemas will know that you pulled up next to pre-installed speakers and wound down the windows, but the class of 2017 involves flicking your radio in to the right frequency. Great for a crisp, clear sound, but not when you miss a crucial bit of plot because there’s interference or you’re suddenly redirected to the traffic news.

Nor am I convinced I’d want to sit in a medium-sized hatchback for two hours in the depths of winter, trying to listen to bits of movie dialogue over the sound of hailstones bouncing off the windscreen, but at this time of year drive-ins are a right giggle. Buy your popcorn at the supermarket earlier on, load your car up with mates and park up the film, which given the audiences being targeted means it’ll likely be something nostalgic and catchy. I ended up watching Grease, and the following night a mate spent two hours watching Top Gun from a Saab 900.

I’ve long maintained cars solve all sorts of problems. I just wasn’t expecting the rocketing cost of going to the cinema to be one of them.