Fiat 500

Ford Fiesta – still brilliant in a high-tech Britain

THE future can hang on a minute.

I know that we’re supposed to boldly sailing – on a solar-powered catamaran, presumably – into a brave new world of lab-grown, meat-free burgers delivered by drones, but right now there’s still a McDonalds on every busy road and a JD Wetherspoon in virtually every town centre. Your whole life can be conducted on Android and yet sales of vinyl records are up year-on-year. Perhaps most pertinently, for all the talk that electric cars and automation are the future, last time I looked the decidedly analogue Ford Fiesta was still Britain’s best-selling new car.

At the moment all the muttering is about how the humble supermini is about to embrace zero-emissions motoring. Renault’s Zoe has been chipping away at this bit of the market for a while (don’t worry, the Clio’s still very much available), but Vauxhall is being brave and launching its Corsa in all-electric form first, and it’s a similar story for Peugeot’s latest 208.

But while there is a plug-in hybrid Fiesta on the way the current range depends on a blend of rather more familiar petrol and turbodiesel engines, and it feels all the better for it. It’s as bit like Liam Gallagher – yes, it’s the same old act, and yet only last weekend it was good enough to headline Glastonbury.

I know because last weekend I spent 700 miles thumping up and down the British road network in a Zetec-spec EcoBoost – and couldn’t, with the exception of three very minor moans, couldn’t knock it. With the current Fiesta, introduced 18 months ago, it feels like you sit on the seats rather than in them, it still lacks mid-range thump in one-litre form, and on the motorway the ride’s a bit more fidgety than I’d ideally like, but that’s about it. In other respect Ford’s taken what it had with the 2009-era Fiesta, revisited absolutely everything, and quietly made it better rather than reinventing the wheel.

So while the turbocharged three cylinder engine still revels in a few revs to get results, it managed to average a fairly hefty fifty to the gallon – and I wasn’t on any sort of eco run. On the motorways it was long-legged enough to make light work of a voyage to Scotland and back – and when it wasn’t it could still entertain me on the B-roads, offering just enough feedback through its chunky, three-spoke steering wheel. Even the little things won me over; plenty of superminis integrate their stereo systems into a touchscreen system these days but the Fiesta gives you old-fashioned buttons beneath it as well, so you could flick between Joy Division and The Cure without losing the sat nav.

I suspect the reason the Ford Fiesta, even when every other new car is a crossover, electric car or plug-in hybrid, is still Britain’s biggest seller is because it’s ruddy good at what it does. The Suzuki Swift might match it when comes to generating grins, VW’s Polo has a more premium feel and the Fiat 500 is a lot more charming, but it’s tricky to think of a better all-rounder.

The Fiat 500 might be showing its age, but it still makes sense

The Fiat 500 might be showing its age, but it's still thoroughly likeable

EVEN if you don’t read the rest of this week’s column you can have this nugget of motoring knowledge for nothing; the country that gave us the Ferrari Daytona and Lamborghini Miura once proclaimed the, erm, Rover 75 to be the world’s most beautiful car.

Which reveals not much about the Rover 75 but says an awful lot about how Italy, deep down, is obsessed with English heritage. They adore Earl Grey and reading about Wills ‘n’ Kate.

In return we’re a nation deeply in love with our trattorias, linguine and Lambrettas (well, I am, anyway). We know that their coffee’s better than ours and that the stuff being strutted down the catwalks of Milan is considerably more chic than anything we show off in London. Most tellingly of all, we as a nation are still infatuated with the Fiat 500.

It is, despite a 2016 facelift so delicate that you wouldn’t notice, essentially the same car introduced 11 years ago, and yet it’s still Fiat’s biggest seller here. Fiat 500s are the snowflakes of motoring – and I don’t mean that they’re easily offended. When they’re around they’re lovely to look at and hardly ever identical, despite there being millions of ‘em.

I can also say that strap me into an Abarth version with the 170bhp Essesse kit and I’ll squeak like an excited kitten, but having spent a weekend whizzing around in a 1.2-litre Lounge model it seems that the dear old 500 might be showing its age a bit. Sure, it’s now got an infotainment system neatly integrated into the dash and the super-light steering when it’s in City mode is genuinely handy, but head onto the motorway in one and it’s a noisy companion. It’s not the 70bhp engine that’s the issue, just that you notice the wind and tyre noise a lot more than you’d expect.

It’s also fair to say that a Renault Twingo’s more fun to drive, a Volkswagen Up feels better built and a Ford Ka+ is a lot more practical, but that’s a bit like saying you’d rather have a tap water than a glass of red with your friends on a Friday. Wearing my sensible hat I’d have to recommend that you don’t buy a 500 – but I know that you’ll ignore me, and I completely understand why.

I like the Fiat 500. With every facelift and new model the MINI seems a bit further removed from the classic that long inspired it, but the longer the Italians leave their baby alone the better the styling seems to work. I’m not a fan of the TwinAir, but I delight in the fact you can rev the nuts off the four-cylinder models and still get 45 or more to a gallon. And I especially like the fact that something with a respectable-if-not-brilliant Euro NCAP safety rating (three stars, since you’re asking) doesn’t weigh the same as a small moon and can easily slot into even the meanest of multi-storey parking spaces.

Not bad from a country that thinks the Rover 75 is the world’s most beautiful car. Not bad at all!

Capri – A holiday paradise weirdly lacking in fast Fords

It seems residents of Capri haven't taken to the car named after their island

CAPRI. Sideways urban streetfighter, Seventies touring car hero, star of The Professionals, the car you always promised yourself, and today’s hot topic when it comes to classic car prices.

Oh, and it’s a sun-kissed island in the Mediterranean, which I ended up exploring the other day. Given Ford’s coupé was made right here in the North West for much of its life – and if you don’t remember growing up with it, you’ll almost certainly know someone who does – it seemed rude not to take up an opportunity to look around the place that lent its name to Europe’s answer to the Ford Mustang.

Obviously as the ferry lumbered into the dock I was excitedly expecting a pristine Capri RS3100 mounted on a plinth to greet visitors, reminding anyone embarking upon this beautiful island of its historic connection to one of Europe’s greatest cars. But there wasn’t.

There wasn’t even a shiny 280 Brooklands – the name given to the last Capris, which are hugely valuable these days – in a glass case to highlight Capri’s connection to the Capri, or even a rental firm based in the town centre chucking tourists the keys to a slightly tatty 1.6 Laser. There are a couple of museums on the island but they’re all dedicated to Roman artefacts, the various things that grow nearby and the works of the various artists and poets who lived there, but the car named after it warrants barely a footnote.

I’d suggest finding one of the few Capris that isn’t worth £20,000 and sending it over as a permanent tribute to the island’s contribution to motoring history, but it appears you aren’t even allowed to do that. You’re not allowed to take cars onto Capri during the summer months, unless you’re a resident who already owns one. Guess what? None of them have a Ford Capri.

But despite not offering the eponymous car a single mention there are a few things worth heading over for, if you ever end up holidaying in this stiflingly hot part of Italy. The residents-only rule mean that while there aren’t many cars a fairly high proportion of them are Fiat 500s (of the proper variety, not the modern hatchback). Then there’s the endless two-stroke clatter of people wobbling around on Vespa scooters, but the best thing of all are what they use for taxis. You’d probably forgotten the Fiat Marea exists but the people of Capri haven’t; they’ve stretched it, chopped the roof off, and fitted it with a wooden steering wheel, red leather seats and orange door handles.

Fiat Marea taxi in Capri

Even on an island surprisingly lacking in Fords that’s worth the ferry ticket alone.