MPV

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

Why the Citroen C4 Picasso makes total sense in today’s Britain

The C4 Picasso might not be the sharpest MPV through the bends, but David thinks it's all the better for it

I DON’T mind saying it. I’m a bit slower than I used to be.

Not in the sense that I’m no longer any good at the brainteasers Channel 4 chucks at me during the commercial breaks on Countdown or that I no longer know how many were going to St Ives – but that it takes longer to cover ground, no matter what the car. Regardless of whether I’m in a Suzuki Celerio or the new McLaren Speedtail, the age of 50mph average speed restrictions that go on for ten miles at a time have seen to that.

Not that it matters one jot, because speed isn’t the luxury it used to be. Do the one percent jet across the globe in three hours on Concorde? Nope, because these days they can do it overnight in an A380 first class cabin that’s better equipped than most hotel suites. The sleeper trains to Cornwall and the Scottish Highlands have been kitted out with more upmarket furnishings because the operators know plenty of folk are happy to fork out for the hotel-on-rails experience. Making the journey more enjoyable, rather than quicker, is where the smart money is these days.

Which is probably why I emerged from Citroen’s latest C4 Picasso with a content smile the other day. It might be a distant relative of the Peugeot 5008 that I tried a few months ago, but unlike that car it doesn’t pretend to be a chunky off-roader – this unashamedly sets out its stall as a people carrier, and feels all the better for it.

Nope it’s not the most razor-edge family bus through the corners but it handles capably enough, with the reward instead being a soft, supple ride. Visibility is excellent – no turgid, safety-paranoid A-pillars here – and the full-length panoramic glass roof makes it feel like something like out of Grand Designs inside. You can slide the sun visor mountings back into the headlining too, to give you even more light through that massive windscreen.

Kevin McCloud would approve of how avantgarde and well appointed it is inside too – I love the dashboard plastics and the way all the dials have been moved into a single digital slab on the centre of the dashboard, including a strip-style speedometer reminiscent of what your granddad had in his Rover P6. The seats heat up and give you massages too – and the front passenger one comes with a leg rest not entirely like something you’d get on a living room recliner.

I even like the way it looks – those headlights make it seem like it’s squinting at you with faint disapproval, as if to say you’re an idiot for buying an SUV instead. In fact, the only real chink in its armour is that something this massive really ought to have seven seats – for that you’d need its Grand Picasso sibling, which doesn’t look as good.

So there you go – I’m championing an MPV because I think it’s a bit of a looker. Maybe I am a bit slower than I used to be…