The Grand Tour

Top Gear needs to lose its test track – and The Stig

The Track-tor is one of the hlghlights of the latest Top Gear series

SO Whitehall bureaucracy has succeeded where the Argentine government, the Mexican embassy and the Daily Mail have failed. Even a late-night platter of cold meat – served in a North Yorkshire hotel, of course – tried to finish Top Gear off, but if you believe the tabloids then it’s a dispute over building houses that’ll finally force the Beeb’s motoring juggernaut to pull over.

For those of you haven’t had your head buried in the newspapers over the Easter weekend then it essentially boils down to this; the site where both the TG studios and the infamous test track are located have been earmarked for more than 1000 new homes, and last week Housing Secretary Sajid Javid ruled in the developers’ favour. Perhaps in a few years’ time Surrey’s first-time buyers will be snapping three-bed semis in Hammerhead Close and Gambon Grove.

But even if it does go ahead, will it kill Top Gear off? Not a chance. In fact, I reckon it’s exactly the shot in the arm that the show needs.

I reckon that with every series under the Harris/Le Blanc/Reid premiership the show’s steadily getting stronger, by gorging itself on a diet of properly done, serious car reviews. The bits that are funny are the bits that don’t feel forced; the hilarious segment with the V8 tractor worked because Matt Le Blanc really does have an infectious enthusiasm for farm machinery, owning four tractors in real life. And watching Chris Harris performing all those balletic mid-corner routines is wonderful because he’s clearly in his element doing it.

But the bits that really grate are the ones the trio have inherited from the old Clarkson/Hammond/May era. Specifically – and forgive the very old TG reference – they need to find another old Jaguar, stick The Stig in it and fire him off the end of an aircraft carrier for good.

The Stig – invented by Clarkson and now Grand Tour exec producer Andy Willman to avoid having a dull racing driver setting the lap times – feels like a groupie who’s outstayed their welcome, or that episode of I’m Alan Partridge where the protagonist awkwardly hangs around a funeral trying to convince someone important to give him a job. If the BBC won’t allow the not-so-mysterious racing driver to rejoin his old chums over on The Grand Tour then he really ought to be quietly pensioned off, so the show’s real stars can get into their stride. It was side-splitting when The Stig arrived in an Isle of Man-based TG episode on the baggage carousel at Douglas Airport, but now the character is baggage of an entirely different sort.

If Top Gear loses its test track it’ll be a great opportunity to relocate the show, keep the good bits and dump all the bits that started wearing thin a decade ago, including the tame racing driver. Some say that he’s no longer funny…

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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.