MGF

Don’t kill off the city car – they’re too much fun

NOT LONG ago I was lucky enough to be granted an audience with the chap who designed the original Mazda MX-5 – you know, the one with the pop-up headlights. Only, as it turns out, he never actually wanted it to have them because they added weight.

You’d like Tom Matano. He’s a proper petrolhead who hates cars, in his own words, “designed by committees and market researchers”, and has a soft spot for the Mini. He also reckons that ditching rev-happy, twin cam petrol engines for on-trend electric motors won’t do the world’s biggest-selling sports car a jot of harm – but only if the delicate handling isn’t ruined in the process.

Yet the one slightly depressing nugget of motoring wisdom that he shared with me is why all the other carmakers have stopped copying the MX-5’s formula for small, simple, open-top sports cars – it’s because the numbers no longer add up. There is no modern day MGF because it wouldn’t be worth someone making it.

This exactly what we’ve already seen with a couple of other endangered automotive species. The Vauxhall Insignia and Ford Mondeo are just about keeping the family saloon on life support, the Renault Espace-sized MPV has been all but obliterated by its smaller rivals and crossovers, and the small, two-door coupe is dead. The MINI Coupe and the Honda CR-Z offered a glimmer of hope for the latter, but both neither sold brilliantly here, and have long since disappeared from the showrooms.

But now there could be an even more serious casualty – the small city car, and it’s emissions regulations that are to blame. Because they’re worked out on the average CO2 a carmaker’s entire range puts out, it’s much easier and cheaper to lower the amount of nasty gases coming out of a gas-guzzling larger model, and more palatable to convert them into plug-in hybrid of electric-only models. As a result, it’s less profitable to make the smallest models – which is why the Vauxhall Viva, Ford Ka and Peugeot 108 are probably looking a tad worried by now.

Which is a real shame, I reckon, because it’s usually a carmaker’s titchiest offerings that are the most involving and least pretentious. Given the choice between a Ferrari 488 Pista and a Citroen C1 and told to go out and spend a wet October morning on any of West Lancashire’s narrow, bumpy roads, I’d pick the tiny French hatchback every time because you can use all of its power and grip, all of the time. It’s the same with the Volkswagen Up, Ford Ka and all of the other small cars in this sort of price bracket – the emphasis is on simple, lightweight tech and small petrol engines, and they’re always somehow more satisfying than their heavy, hybrid hatchback bigger brothers.

As I see it there are only two solutions. Either the EU thinks up a different way of laying out its emissions regulations, or the only carmaker that can be relied upon to come up with brilliant small cars, time and time again, comes up with a tiny hatchback so stunning that everyone feels compelled to copy it. The sort of ground-breaking car that sticks its fingers up at the management committees and market researchers, and gets a thumbs up from Tom Matano instead.

I sincerely hope someone at Fiat reads The Champion

The Government ban on petrol and diesel in 2040 will be fine for new cars. It’s the old ones I’m worried about

Cars like the BMW i3 have made zero emissions motoring more fashionable

APOLOGIES to Mark Twain’s estate for having to shamelessly pilfer one of his better-known quotes. Reports of the car’s death – which you’ve probably read over the past week or so – have been greatly exaggerated.

Chances are you’ll already be aware of the Government’s intention to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars as of 2040, which a million internet bores instantly took to mean the death knell for motoring fun as we know it. The party that Karl Benz and his pals threw back in 1886 is finally over, because we all overdid it and got drunk on AC Cobras and Range Rover Sports.

But calling it quits isn’t really doing us as a species, particularly those of who love cars, much credit. Ever since we figured out that we had opposable thumbs and could light fires we’ve been pretty good at working out answers to things, and even by the Government’s own prescription we have roughly 23 years to solve this one.

I’m not going to get into how we make the clean energy that propels a zero emissions car but the end result’s a lot better than it used to be. Seven years ago I drove an electric MINI that had a battery so huge it took up the back seats, a range of barely 100 miles and engine braking so severe you could pull up at roundabouts without touching the middle pedal. It only took another two years for the motor industry to invent an electric car that was fun to drive – take a bow, Renault Twizy – and fast forward to 2017 and the charging points at motorway service stations are crammed with Nissan Leafs and Teslas. If we’ve made it this far in seven years, you probably won’t need a diesel Golf as a new car in two decades’ time.

The bit I worry about is what happens with all the old ones. The more intelligent people at Westminster have already said that banning them isn’t the answer, partly because outlawing the MGB is a bit like banning Buckingham Palace and more importantly because the nation’s classic car hobby is worth £5.5 billion to the British economy (and it’s still growing). Horses have been old hat to commuters since the Austin Seven showed up, but they’re still allowed to use our roads.

But the thing with horses is that you only need straw, carrots and a decent vet to keep them going. If everyone else is driving electric cars in 2040 will there still be petrol stations to fill up the MGF or the Peugeot 205 GTI? Or places that can do a new battery for an Audi TT?

The car, I honestly reckon, will live on. It just might be a bit trickier than it used to be.