mazda

Driving top-down? You can have too much of a good thing

Too much sports car fun can damage your health, as our motoring man has discovered

WINE, Italian cuisine and Queen’s Greatest Hits. As I know from painful experience with all three – which normally involves indigestion or annoyed neighbours banging on walls – you definitely can have too much of a good thing.

Unfortunately, I can now add enjoying a sports car, top down, in the spring sunshine to that list. It is, I reckon, exactly the sort of hedonistic petrolhead hoot that makes all those hours spent queuing in city centre traffic jams all worthwhile; the giddy thrill of going exploring in search of a country pub in something that puts the wind in your hair and a big smile on your face. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it in a 1930s MG T-type, a Lotus Seven from the mid-Sixties or a brand-new BMW Z4, because even though their technology is wildly different, the results are always broadly the same.

This is exactly the sort of bright-eyed optimism I ventured out with over a glorious Bank Holiday last weekend in my own small sports car, my trusty (if slightly faded-looking) Mazda MX-5. For a 28-year-old roadster it still works a treat, happily hitting the high notes with its rev counter, time and time again, but unfortunately it seems there’s one component that just isn’t as well engineered for the task as all of Mazda’s double wishbone suspension and twin overhead cam engine trickery. Me, to be exact.

What I’d forgotten was that in blazing sunshine and 24-degree heat that human skin just isn’t as good at coping with hour after hour of top-down fun. I naively ventured out for a two-hour drive to see some old racing cars going sideways at the Donington Historic Festival, spent the day looking at Ford Capris and Jaguar D-types, and spent another two hours driving home again.

Driving with the roof down for hours at a time is deceptive, because the breeze blowing onto your face masks the fact that you’re slowly simmering like a barbecue sausage. It was only when I returned home eight long hours later that I realised my complexion looked like a curious blend of an Oompa Lumpa and a freshly grown tomato. No amount of after sun was going to remedy this one overnight!

So if you are lucky enough to have a two-seater convertible at your disposal, do make sure that you keep a bottle of sun tan lotion to hand so you can keep on applying it throughout the day (and not just first thing in the morning, which was my schoolboy error).

Play it sensibly and you might just be able to enjoy all three days with the top down, as opposed to spending two of them trapped indoors, nursing colossal sunburn.
Although it did give me a chance to crack open a bottle of wine and stick Queen on again, of course…

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The Saab 9000 Turbo is dead. Long live the Kia Stinger

Kia has tough competition from the Germans for its new Stinger sports saloon

MANY have tried, but none have succeeded. Who’d have thought the Saab 9000 Turbo would be such a tricky act to follow?

It’s a curious (and not particularly lucrative) corner of the car market to capture; the people who are in the market for a tarmac-snorting, junior-sized sports saloon that ISN’T a BMW, AMG-tweaked Mercedes of hotted-up Audi. This particularly elusive species of motorist is after something with just enough cachet to cut it outside a nearby golf club (so that’s virtually every fast Ford and sporty Vauxhall out), and is hung up enough about long-term reliability to give anything made by Alfa Romeo a wide berth. Not entirely fairly, I’ve always reckoned.

Just think about all those cars over the years that have offered a 9000 Turbo-esque premise but never really taken off (no jet fighter puns intended). The Lexus IS-F, MG ZT260, Mazda6 MPS, Volvo S60R, Chrysler 300C, Volkswagen Passat W8, for instance. For all their leather seats, ample equipment levels and muted growls from their exhausts none have ever really managed to convincingly win over the anything-but-a-blummin’-BMW brigade. In fact you could argue that Saab itself never nailed it either, given the Swedes ran out of cash five years ago.

But that isn’t going to stop Kia giving it their best shot anyway. Their new BMW-baiter arrives here in January and it’s already onto a winner because it has a cool name; it might not be posh and German, but you can at least tell your mates that you drive a Stinger. Which it makes it sound like an American muscle car.

It also picks up the Saab’s old trick of using turbos to rustle up the sort of mid-range thump that comes in handy on a motorway’s outside lane; in the range-topping 3.3-litre V6 there are two of them, and they send 365bhp to the rear wheels. The upshot is that you’ll end up surging to 60mph in 4.7 seconds and onto a top speed of 168mph. Yes, I know that’s academic when you can only legally do 70mph, but when you bear in mind that sports saloon ownership is basically a better funded version of Top Trumps for grown-ups the big Kia comes across quite well.

For the same sort of money as a BMW 340i you can have a four-door saloon that’s bigger, better equipped, quicker and more powerful – and it’s styled by the same bloke who did the original Audi TT, just for good measure.

So it’s a no-brainer that your next sports saloon’s going to be a Kia Stinger, then? Nope, didn’t think it was. The BMW brochure’s just over there, seeing as you’re asking…

I’ll admit it – driving in Scotland is fun

David was able to enjoy Scotland safely in his Mazda MX-5

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve had a pen pal but I seem to have picked one up at Classic Car Weekly. He doesn’t write often but the topic’s always the same – I’m apparently guilty of glamorising driving dangerously on rural roads.

So he’ll no doubt be writing in when he discovers I’ve just spent a weekend driving around the Scottish Highlands, not to visit a distant aunt in Fort William, but for fun. I’ll admit it; I did nearly 1000 miles over four days for no good reason other than to drive on great roads simply because I enjoy doing it.

We’ll start with the location. Pick up any of the glossy travel mags and they’ll tell you that the A82 between Glasgow and Glencoe is Europe’s best stretch of road but this simply isn’t true – you can’t enjoy driving it because you’ll be stuck behind a lorry winding its way up to Inverness, and you can’t stop to admire the view because all the laybys are full of Dutch motorhomes. But the A87 and the A887 are utterly wonderful. Set off from Southport tomorrow morning and you’ll be there by mid-afternoon, and because you’ll want to stay overnight you’ll be giving the Scottish economy a helping hand, too.

But the real joy is you can do all of this without going anywhere remotely near a speed limit. Yes, I’ll freely admit that there were far too many people up in the Highlands driving dangerously in BMW X5s and doing silly overtakes in Honda Civic Type-Rs, but that’s something you’re as likely to see in Parbold as you are in Pitlochry. The trick is to drive around in a car that thrills at real world speeds.

I spent the weekend up there in my Mazda MX-5 but you’d be just as happy in any MG, Caterham, Lotus or Alfa Spider – and if you do need something with an extra set of seats, anything vaguely old with a Peugeot, Ford or BMW badge up front should suit the bill. Some of the best drives I’ve ever done have been at the helm of a derv-driven Peugeot 306 and a 15-year-old Ford Mondeo, so don’t knock ‘em until you’ve tried them!

But the end result is always the same; you emerge with a smile on your face, the Highlands economy gets a boost, and – unless you really do drive like a berk – Police Scotland don’t have to deal with unnecessary paperwork. Drive sensibly of course, but freely admit that it’s something you enjoy, like playing a piano or going fishing.

I might even arrange for my pen pal to go up there and for there to be an Austin-Healey 3000 waiting at the other end. Chances are, I suspect he’ll enjoy it…

MGB vs MX-5 – which would YOU take to Scotland?

IMG_8310THE MGB’s fresh MoT has just made one of my big motoring calls of 2016 that little bit harder.

In a few weeks’ time I’m going on a stag do with a petrolhead twist; driving around the glorious roads of the Scottish Highlands for three days. There’s an odd assortment of automotive gems going on the trip, ranging from a Hillman Imp and an MGB GT V8 to a Saab 9000 Turbo, a Mercedes W123 and a Mazda MX-5.

But – and most of the fellow stag weekend attendees already know this – I’m having a genuine dilemma over which of my two classics to take. MGB GT or MX-5?

Until this morning the Mazda had it in the bag. Drive any early MX-5 and you’ll know instantly why it’s such a masterclass in steering and handling – it genuinely is one of the great driver’s cars of the past 30 years, and yet you can pick ’em for under a grand. If I took mine up it’d be big fun on Scotland’s wonderful country lanes, and if the sun makes a rare appearance it takes all of two seconds to drop the roof down. It’s endlessly reliable too and it’ll easily eke 35 miles out of a gallon on the M6 on the way up there. The only slight snag is that my import-spec one’s been fitted with a three-speed auto rather than the snickety five-speed manual, but that’s a small price to pay for it being such a brilliant companion every day I’m not barrelling down a B-road.

Mazda Eunos Roadster - David Simister

But then last weekend I took the MGB out for a 250-mile trip to the Lakes and back for a Classic Car Weekly gig last weekend. And it was brilliant.

Yes it’s noisy, you have to work with the heavy steering to manhandle it through corners and it’ll do 25mpg on a good day, but it’s so much more of an event to drive. It involves you so much in the experience, and while it’s more tiring to drive on long motorway slogs it’ll happily pound along with the Audis and BMWs in the outside lane if it needs to.

I just assumed the MGB would be too unreliable to turn up and it’d fail its MoT – but having just done a faultless return flight to Cumbria and earned itself another 12 months’ ticket it’s time to think again. I love both cars and would happily take either up to the Highlands – but until I work out how to drive two cars at once, I’m going to have to make a tough choice.

Which would you go for?