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.

Adaptive Cruise Control is too clever by half – but I’m hooked

Driving a Golf on motorways can involve a leap of faith

AN ERRANT Transit van tears off the slip road and onto the motorway, straight into your path. You’re hurtling towards Ford’s finest at bang-on 70mph, acutely aware that a nasty collision isn’t a million miles away. Your right foot quivers nervously towards the brake pedal – yet you do absolutely nothing.

This was me last Friday, taking a leap of motoring faith on the M11. Despite being completely and painfully aware of everything around me I had to resist every ounce of brainpower telling me to tap the middle pedal. Even though I was in full control I’d delegated the decision to a car, and this worried me a lot.

I’m by no means a brilliant driver and I’m sure any half-decent petrolhead would make mincemeat of me on a track day, but logic dictates that a Volkswagen Golf TDI BlueMotion can’t be as smart as I am. Except it is, of course.

A few femtoseconds before I haul in the anchors an unguided hand works out Mr Daily Star Reader in his Transit is tootling along at 10mph less than I am and gently slows the Golf down, working out what the safe distance from the van’s rump is and keeping me at it. Any instant where he puts his foot down is matched by a gentle throb from the Golf’s turbodiesel as it speeds up. If he slows down, the VW slows down. It’s automotive witchcraft, and I’m a convert.

I know that Adaptive Cruise Control has been around for ages – Jaguar was fitting it to the XJ when Liberty X were all the rage – but it’s only now that it’s making its way into mass-market cars. It turns an invention that was frankly rubbish into something that genuinely makes long-distance driving easier.

The only time ‘dumb’ cruise control, as I now call it, works is on a motorway at 3am. Try it at any other time and you’re either frantically thumbing the buttons like a Playstation-addicted teenager, or stomping on the brakes to prevent your car being involved in a rear-end shunt. The Golf’s adaptive system turned it into a guided missile, able to adapt instantly to its surroundings.

You absolutely have to be on top of things – it won’t slam on if Mr Transit does up front – but it meant my feet could take it easy on a five-hour slog up from Kent the other night. Normally I’m a bit resistant to new tech, but Adaptive Cruise Control is genuinely brilliant.

Mass-market cars are cleverer than ever, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The Golf’s already asked if it can write next week’s column…

Learner drivers on motorways? About time


A YEAR or so ago I ticked off another entry on the petrolhead bucket list; I maxed a car on a limit-free stretch of German autobahn.

Two things stick out from that afternoon somewhere near Stuttgart. The first is that as it was a Skoda Fabia Estate with four hefty Brits and their luggage aboard, the point at which it physically wouldn’t go any faster wasn’t actually all that quick. Secondly – and more importantly – the discipline of other drivers meant it felt far safer had I attempted to do the illegal thing and pull off the same trick on the autobahn’s British equivalent.

I’ve long moaned about what motorway driving’s all too often about. Impatient sales reps in Audi A4s driving inches off your back bumper. Lorry drivers sauntering through 50mph average speed zones at whatever speed their Scania feels happiest. People who cut across all three lanes sans indicator to make their turnoff at the last possible moment. Oh, and the chap in the battered Peugeot 206 who was so incensed by another driver he decided to stop in the middle lane of the M6 before lowering his window and flicking another motorist the finger.

Motorways are the fastest roads in the UK yet – in my experience at least – home to the worst driving. So plans to let up ‘n’ coming motorists learn how to use them are well overdue.

It defies logic that when I passed my test a couple of years ago I was able to jump into my 998cc Mini Mayfair – a car barely capable of the motorway speed limit – and drive down the M57 on a shopping trip to Warrington. Yet while the current theory test does touch on motorway driving, it seems silly not to go over it in the practical tests at all.

Obviously this does pose one big problem – although not one that’ll affect you in the North West, where lots of motorways criss-cross the M6 as it snakes its way up the country. If you live in Norfolk, Cornwall, or the far-away bits of Scotland and Wales, there are no motorways.

Perhaps we could either set up a scheme that allows learners to travel over and spend a day learning these roads, because it is important that the next generation of drivers knows that there is no such a thing as a slow lane on motorways and that those chevrons painted onto the roads on the busier bits haven’t been put there for fun. It also seems a bit bonkers that you need no practice whatsoever before being allowed to slot a family hatchback into a 70mph torrent of busy traffic.

The fact is the speed I cracked in a borrowed Skoda in a foreign country felt safer than the M62 does most nights. Making people learn the ropes is long overdue.