Smart

The new London taxi – probably the best car you’ll never drive

It might look traditional but the new black cab is very high tech

AWFULLY sorry, readers. I’ve quite openly failed this week to provide the sort of sensible consumer advice The Champion sticks up for – because the most eye-opening car I’ve driven in years is one which you’re unlikely to ever hop behind the wheel of.

Not that it’s some decadent chunk of carbon fibre supercar or a leather-lined saloon fit for the reserved spaces in the company, although it does cost £55,500 – about the same as a high-end E-Class or A6. In fact the reason why you’re unlikely to ever end up in the front seat is that the whole point is to experience it from the back – because it’s the new London taxi.

Apparently there are three LECV TXs plying their trade on Merseyside but the London Electric Vehicle Company – as the black cab’s makers are now officially known – is already ramping up production, so chances are that one will end up ferrying you home after last orders in the near future. Even if you’ve had an entire evening’s worth of real ale, the back’s a nice place to be, with a panoramic glass roof, in-built WiFi zone and a little gadget to accept contactless card payments without having to stretch towards the driver. It’s also the first black cab that allows wheelchair users to sit facing forward rather than sideways – the sort of stuff that matters when it’s a tenner a ride.

But it’s actually at the business end where things get really clever. The new arrival only weighs 100kg more than the outgoing TX4 black cab but it’s stuffed full of batteries and electric motors rather than a clunky old turbodiesel. It’ll glide about for 120 silent miles, so that any conversations you force on your passengers about how the country’s going to pot won’t be interrupted.

What about the chap in the suit who wants you to drive him to Leeds – and to hell with the cost? No problem – there’s a petrol-powered 1.5-litre engine for back-up, and although it sounds a bit like a very quiet air con unit when it kicks in it’ll still plod happily up the M62 at 70mph. You can also charge the batteries up to 80 per cent in just 25 minutes – and reassuringly, it still looks like a black cab.

Yet the reason why it’s such an eye-opener is because no car the size of a Range Rover Sport should have a turning circle that’d make a Smart owner jealous. You hop in and you have the sort of high-up driving position you’d expect from a Transit van, and yet everything feels light and effortless. It’s quiet, handles far better than anything its considerable size really ought to and the way the electric motor and petrol-back up works feels wonderfully natural. Get the hang of the engine braking and you can almost drive it using one pedal.

Back in the day you had to be either a fully-fledged cabbie or Stephen Fry to want to spend hours at a time driving a black cab. But even without a single fare to pick up I’d happily have the new one – it’s that good. That’s sensible consumer advice, surely?

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The only way is Up – if you’re looking for a small hot hatch

The Up GTI is the smallest hot hatch Volkswagen makes

IT’S THE sort of late landing an Irish budget airline would be proud of. There’s arriving fashionably late – and then there’s the Volkswagen Up GTI.

Connoisseurs of pint-sized and spiced-up hatchbacks might have already read that as of this week the smallest of Wolfsburg GTI-badged wonders has just gone on sale across the UK. You might have also read in the motoring mags about how it copes tremendously with tight turns, and seen James May making excitable squawking noises while driving it on The Grand Tour. But the fact remains that Volkswagen first started promising us a spruced-up version of the teeny-tiny up way back in 2013, at a time when I was actually using a bog-standard Up as a company car.

I can only assume that Volkswagen was being considerate by teasing us with it in concept car form – albeit missing that elusive third letter and badged as just the GT then – so it could give press-on drivers like me the chance to save up for it. Which is a good thing, because even in the poverty spec guise I reckon the Up’s the best car VW currently makes (especially now that the Scirocco has been pensioned off).

But all those years of teasing car nuts with the idea of an Up with added oomph has given the rest of the motoring world time to catch up. For a few hundred pounds less, for instance, you can have the Renault Twingo GT, which follows roughly the same formula but sticks the engine behind the rear seats and spits all the power out through the rear wheels. So basically it’s a Porsche 911 that’s more practical and easier to park. There’s also the Smart ForFour Brabus, which uses the same engine as the Twingo in a much heavier package and slaps on a £20k price tag for the privilege. Erm, and that’s about it.

Sure, there’s a new Suzuki Swift Sport on the way too but it’s astonishing that there’s no Sport spinoff of Ford’s Ka+ and that Vauxhall’s VXR boffins haven’t got their hands on an Adam. There’s no GTI twist on Peugeot’s 108 or a VTS variant of its sister car, the Citroen C1. Even VW hasn’t extended the GTI fun factor to the Up’s extended cousins – why isn’t SEAT doing a Mii Cupra, or Skoda Citigo vRS?

Hot hatches inject a sparkle of excitement into the all-too-often anodyne world of front-wheel-drive supermarket companions, and the smaller and lighter they start off the more fun and immediate they end up being in GTI form.

Come on carmakers, let’s have some more! Until then the only way is Up, even if it is five years late. Or to a Twingo GT, if you’re being awkward.