lamborghini

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!

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The Suzuki Jimny is a proper off-roader. A Vauxhall Viva on stilts isn’t

The Vauxhall Viva Rocks has just gone on sale across the UK

ON THE other side of the world Suzuki’s crack team of engineers are doing what I thought would never happen. After nearly 20 years they’re finally preparing a replacement for the Suzuki Jimny – which is a good thing, because it’s a proper small off-roader.

It’ll look a bit macho, but that’s because it’ll have four-wheel-drive, chunky tyres and proper ground clearance. But I am bored to tears with virtually every new car being launched nowadays attempting to look like an off-roader, but coming across instead as a bloated, watered-down pastiche of one. It’s though an entire generation of outdoor types have stopped aspiring to be Ray Mears and have settled for being Ant and Dec on I’m A Celebrity instead.

Take the new Vauxhall Viva Rocks. Its makers are doing exactly what Rover did with the Streetwise 15 years ago – jacking a perfectly good hatchback up by about an inch, cloaking it with all sorts of cosmetic add-ons to make it look a bit like an off-roader, and convincing roughly no one. The Viva’s a perfectly good car, of course, but this new one is being given mud-plugging aspirations it can’t possibly live up to. It won’t even crawl over a kerb to escape a supermarket car park, which was always the town centre party trick of proper off-roaders.

It’s the same with all the other dreary, derivative crossovers and sports activity vehicles clogging up the new car market at the moment. Why, for instance, is a sporty brand like MG making them? Why are Maserati and Lamborghini joining the fray? And why would you buy a BMW X1 or X3 when a 3-Series Touring is a far, far nicer car to drive in the real world?

I suspect the answer’s because I grew up in a household with two old Land Rovers and am desperately out of step with today’s I’m A Celebrity­-loving crossover buyers, but I still long for the day these cars go out of fashion and people go back to buying hot hatches, swoopy coupes, and plush saloons instead. Oh, and proper off-roaders, with four-wheel-drive and fancy locking diffs, for that matter.

If you want a small, outdoor-type sort of car then by all means buy the new Jimny when it arrives, because it’ll be able to escape the muddy field a Viva Rocks won’t.

Closed roads motor sport is a good thing for Britain

F1 cars have long been a big draw at the Ormskirk MotorFest

GIVE the Government credit where it’s due. It’s stuck to its promises and handed power back to Britain’s towns and cities – about 475bhp, by my reckoning.

That’s roughly how much the Cosworth V8 in a Saudia-Williams FW06 F1 car makes, as driven by Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni in the late 1970s, when they’d have been able to use every last inch of its power on the world’s race circuits. But if you’d seen the same car doing its lap of honour at Ormskirk’s MotorFest event it would’ve been limited, for legal reasons, to the same 30mph your mum’s Fiesta does on the town’s one-way system.

Until now. After years of talking about it Whitehall’s finally gone ahead and lifted the ban on cars doing more than the speed limit at one-off events.

In recent years it has technically been possible to have Ferraris and Jaguars do high speed runs on closed-off British roads, but as it was very complicated and involved obtaining an Act of Parliament very few actually bothered. But as of last Monday it’s now much easier to stage races, sprints and various other forms of motorsport on public roads and in town centres – which I reckon is definitely a good thing.

Take the MotorFest. Every year it brings roughly 15,000 of you into the West Lancashire market town for a bit of high-octane fun, making it Ormskirk’s busiest trading day. It’s a great event, but imagine how much more compelling it’d be if you could watch F1 cars, Jaguar D-types and rally-prepped Subaru Imprezas being given the beans on the one-way system. Obviously these closed-off roads would be properly policed and ‘elf ‘n’ safety checked until the organiser’s desk creaks under the weight of paperwork, but the adrenalin rush of great cars being driven as their makers intended would boost all the businesses nearby.

In fact enterprising so-and-sos could use these new powers for all sorts of things. I’d love to see Lord Street in Southport turned into a sprint course for an afternoon – my bet’s that a Lamborghini Huracan would easily beat a Ferrari 488 in a dash from Duke Street to the fire station. Half Mile Island in Skelmersdale could easily host a round of the British Drift Championship. And what about the Parbold Hill Climb?

I’m sure that precisely none of these ideas will end up anywhere other than the bottom of a beer glass, but it’s nice to know we’re legally allowed to.