top gear

I would love the Alpine A110 to be European Car of the Year – but history is against it

ONLY in an age of boss of Nissan-Renault being under arrest, Volkswagen suggesting cable ties as a fix for broken seatbelts and a former Top Gear star vowing to quit TV for good if he wins I’m A Celebrity can European Car of the Year be considered a bit ho-hum.

The seven-strong shortlist was announced on Monday and – from what I could see, at least – seemed to barely register a faint blip on the nation’s motoring radar. Part of me likes to think it’s because fewer of us care what motoring experts in Sweden or Spain make of the continental car choices when we’re busy trying to order a Full English Brexit, but I suspect it’s got rather a lot more to do with history not being in their favour. The Renault 9, the 1982 victor which is all but forgotten now, being a prime example.

There are many, many examples of the 60-strong panel of motoring writers – proper, learned scholars of the profession who fuss over mid-range torque and intuitive infotainment systems in the same way I worry about MGs with dead batteries – getting it right. They called it right on the first Focus, a genuine game-changer among family hatchbacks, for instance, and the Rover P6 that won the contest’s very first outing is fondly remembered as a brilliant bit of British design. But every time I look back at the Peugeot 307 picking up the plaudits in 2002 or the me-too VW Polo beating the radical Toyota IQ to the top spot in 2010, I cringe a bit, because it just smacks of going for the best all-rounder rather than the one that genuinely moves the cause of the car forward.

This year’s contenders are – deep breath – the Alpine A110, Citroen’s C5 Aircross, Ford’s latest Focus, the Jaguar i-Pace, the Kia Cee’d, the Mercedes A-Class and Peugeot’s 508. I would love to see the 60-strong jury devour a crate of wine between them, throw all caution to the wind and go for the sports car, which is what they did 40 years ago when the Porsche 928 won. But I’m happy to bet that won’t happen (and I’ll happily write a column in The Champion eating my words if it does and the Alpine does a Leicester City).

If it were up to me it’d be the I-Pace strutting home with the silverware, because it’s an eco-friendly, on-message electric car that just happens to look and handle like a Jaguar should, and to hell with the fact you need the thick end of £60,000 to afford one. But it isn’t, so I reckon the smart money’s on either the Aircross or the 508, both of which are perfectly worthy but a bit forgettable.

Whatever happens, we’ll have to wait ‘til next March to find out the winner. In a TV special presented by Noel Edmonds, I’d imagine…

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The Reliant Robin isn’t technically a proper car – but I still love it

I’VE JUST got back from three days of exploring the national classic car show – where one question seemed to be asked more than any other. What’s it like driving a Reliant Robin?

Regular readers might remember earlier this year I snapped one up for £600, and promptly discovered that virtually all of it was broken. It’s taken several months of frustrating repairs to get the little three-wheeler up and running again, but now that it’s through the MoT I can finally reveal the answer.

Or rather, I was about to, but then the radiator decided to drop all of its coolant across a busy dual carriageway, prompting a tail-between-legs phone call to the fourth emergency service and a lengthy roadside repair. Then it needed a boxful of bits and a morning with a timing gun because it was richer than Donald Trump and coughing like Theresa May at a political party conference. So you probably get already that the Reliant Robin is a proper classic car – the sort that people enjoy tinkering with on a Sunday morning. Or in a layby at rush hour.

But then I – by which I mean the talented folk at the Reliant Owners’ Club – finally got my £600 three-wheeler to behave like a car and I could finally go for a proper drive. I’m now happy to report that it’s addictively good fun to buzz around in.

Anyone who’s seen a certain episode of Top Gear would be forgiven for thinking that every corner is a rollover-in-waiting but it just isn’t true. A Robin that’s set up properly will happily flick through roundabouts or through even quite tight bends perfectly happy, and is only going to throw you into a hedge if you really muck about it.

In fact, the bigger problem is Britain’s proliferation of potholes. You end up hitting them a third more of them than you would in a normal car, and if it’s the front wheel that hits one the ride’s particularly unpleasant. So you end up driving it constantly thinking about where the middle of the car is, which is strangely rewarding because it encourages you to really think about your driving to get the best out of it.

But it’s worth it because the steering – which only has the one wheel to control, of course – is light and nimble, the gearchange is wonderfully direct and the engine loves to rev. In fact, it’ll comfortably overtake things on a motorway at seventy, even if the 850cc lump next to your left knee is doing about a million RPM.

It might be noisy and have a habit of breaking down, but it’s a car that’s overflowing with character. Which makes it more than alright in my book.

The new Top Gear presenters? I’d rather have Chris Evans

Chris Evans fronted Top Gear for a single season but was already known for organising the CarFest shows 2.jpg

PADDY McGuinness and Freddie Flintoff presenting Top Gear? Yeah, right.

The fact that I initially responded to this week’s big news – admittedly delivered secondhand by a mate rather than through any vaguely official news source – as someone taking the mick pretty much sums up what I made of the situation.

Yet there it was on the programme’s official website, complete with a photo of the pair posing with Chris Harris and a freshly polished Porsche 911. Obviously, it was some elaborate publicity stunt by the Beeb, and there’d be a hyperlink somewhere directing me to that ancient internet meme with that shot of Leonardo DeCaprio from The Great Gatsby, winking smugly at you as he clinks a glass of Martini. ‘ONLY JOKING!’, it’d scream in enormous white lettering, and we’d all have a good giggle.

Except it didn’t. I’m sure that Paddy and Freddie are both entertaining blokes who’d buy you a pint if you bumped into them a pub and asked them nicely enough, but that shouldn’t be nearly enough to land them the biggest gig in petrolhead-dom. I can only assume that the Take Me Out star has an innate knowledge of lift-off oversteer and the ability to make variable valve timing sound interesting, because Britain’s biggest motoring brand is about to take a massive hit on its credibility if he doesn’t.

It matters because, for all its form for deliberately setting caravans on fire and cartoonish mystery racing driving drivers, Top Gear is still a respected name with clout with the people who make cars, people who work with them and yes, you, the people who buy them. It’s no longer be the place to go if you want to know if the current Astra’s any good but it can still do authoritative as much as entertaining – and that’s because the people fronting it had genuine credibility.

In its mid-Noughties heyday it was fronted by a bloke from Performance Car, a chap who used to present Men & Motors and someone who once got fired from Autocar ­– yep, that’s Clarkson, Hammond and May. You might have found Chris Evans annoying in his single series at the helm but he’s a classic collector who founded and organised his own car show, and Chris Harris has been writing for evo and putting together YouTube clips on cars seemingly since time immemorial. Even Matt LeBlanc has spent an eternity collecting cars and hanging around F1 races.

So I worry that putting two presenters who are massively popular but don’t appear to have any motoring background – even the best thing the official Top Gear statement could reassure us with is that McGuinness is “a massive fan” of the show – is a step entirely in the wrong direction. The next season is the last with the current LeBlanc-led presenting trio, but with Paddy and Freddie taking over and the excellent Rory Reid demoted back to the Extra Gear spinoff, Chris Harris will have a lot of work to do to convince people it’ll still be a show that deserves to be taken seriously.

Me watching it? Yeah, right.

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…

The big surprise about driving a massive van

The extended Vauxhall Movano David used dwarfs other vans

PLEASE don’t tell me what Chris Harris has been powersliding lately. Or what car that bloke from Friends has been bigging up. The world’s biggest car show is back on our screens – but I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet.

When Top Gear returned to the nation’s living rooms last Sunday night I’d only just settled into mine after moving house, which means that as I write any means of watching it was still sealed neatly away in cardboard boxes. It’s funny how relocating forces you to live on the bare basics. No seeing The Stig drifting BMW M3s for me, then.

But what I did get to do was add another motoring superlative to my repertoire during the house move, because the massively extended Vauxhall Movano I used for the job is easily the biggest vehicle I’ve ever been given the keys to.

There doesn’t seem to be an official term for it but the rental firm that entrusted it to me refers to it as a Maxi load, although it’s about as far from the old British Leyland hatchback as Donald Trump is from a sensibly written tweet. It’s a bit bigger, and considerably longer, than a normal Luton van, which means that once you get behind the three seats you have a load area that’s bigger than a typical student flat.

As a result its road presence is vast. Yet it’s all uncannily normal to drive.

Once you get used to what feels like a precariously high driving position – from the helm of a Maxi load you’re looking down on Range Rovers and workmen in Ford Transits – it feels like you could be driving the latest Astra. The steering’s a little vague but it’s light and does everything you ask of it, the six-speed manual does a fine job of keeping the 2.3-litre turbodiesel in check and it’ll tootle along at 60mph while barely breaking a 2000rpm sweat. The fact it can do all this while conveying an entire three-bedroom house’s contents and not creak at the seams, I reckon, is truly remarkable.

The only thing you’ve got to watch out for is just how generous its proportions are; I thought it’d be the width that’d catch me out but in fact it’s the lengthy stroll between the front and rear axles that kept me on my toes throughout my weekend with it. But once you get used to thing it’s surprising how something so enormous can feel so reassuringly normal.

I don’t think the Movano Maxi load will ever earn itself a mention on Top Gear, but in its own unapologetically useful way it’s just as impressive.

Why the Wheeler Dealers Escort Cosworth resto will have you hooked

The Ford Escort RS Cosworth is the first car to be tackled by the new Wheeler Dealers duo

I’M NOT sure if it’s possible to hack into someone’s Sky Plus box but you’d find nothing particularly shocking if you raided mine.

There’s the new series of Red Dwarf, a couple of episodes of Robot Wars and – guilty pleasure time – an ace documentary I recorded a couple of years ago about the making of Thunderbirds. In London media bubble speak it’s all on message content for my target demographic – in other words, the sort of stuff you’d expect a thirtysomething bloke to watch. Except the Harry Potter. That’s my wife’s. Honest!

But what you won’t find much of is motoring telly. Of course there are old episodes of Top Gear and James May’s excellent Cars of the People but the truth is that when you work with cars all day it’s very hard to sit back and find automotive telly that’s genuinely enjoyable. A reality show about some Americans swearing at a rusty Ford in a workshop – and there are many – just doesn’t really cut it.

The new series of Wheeler Dealers, however, just might. Last Saturday I got the chance to watch the first episode ahead of its January 2018 launch, and the new on-screen partnership between presenters Mike Brewer and Ant Anstead really works. Even my wife – who prefers watching Harry Potter, remember – thought it was truly watchable petrolhead telly.

The show’s opening episode already had me at “Hello” because it chronicles the purchase and restoration of one of my favourite cars, a Ford Escort RS Cosworth, but it’s the way that Ant makes the nerdy technical bits feel weirdly accessible that really drew me in. There’s a lovely scene where he strips a turbocharger down to its nuts and bolts, but explains everything in the sort of language even Donald Trump could understand. There are charmingly hand-drawn diagrams on blackboards too, just in case you think a wastegate is something the binmen use to collect your recyclables.

There’s something compelling about the pair’s on-screen banter too – even if you loved the show when it was Mike Brewer and Edd China it’s hard not to find the new partnership effective, because it’s still a show fronted by two blokes who really love – and know a thing or two about – old cars. My only grumble is that it still feels like a show aimed at America first (so Donald Trump definitely WILL understand), but on the opening episode alone I reckon Wheeler Dealers is onto a winner.

It’s made it onto my Sky Planner, put it that way!

Bring back the Land Rover Defender – before everyone else ruins it

Production of the Land Rover Defender ended last year

ABOUT a year or so ago Britain made an historic – but rather controversial – decision. It decided to terminate its decades-old relationship with an international institution.

Since then crime’s increased, prices have gone up and there are mutterings from our friends in the farming fraternity over what they’ll turn to now for support. There have also been heated debates in pubs up or down the land over whether pulling the plug was the right decision, but my mind’s firmly made up.

We definitely need to put the Land Rover Defender back into production.

Since Britain’s best 4x4xfar by far exited the stage last March there’s been a weird void when it comes to truly hardcore off-roaders – and no, the Ford Kuga you have parked outside isn’t going to fill it. For all its terrible handling and lack of shoulder room it had a curious role in keeping rural Britain ticking, and ever since it departed the stage some very unfortunate things have been happening.

For starters crime really has been going up. With no new Defenders to buy people have simply been nicking the old ones, so much so that NFU Mutual is now reporting that thefts are up 17 per cent over the past year. The lack of supply also means that people prepared to pay for legitimate examples are having to stump up more for the privilege; a Defender bought brand new by Rowan Atkinson two years ago has just been sold on for a £20,000 profit, and that’s unlikely to be down to simply having a famous name on the logbook.

But worst of all is that in the absence of any brand new ones the Land Rover’s hard-earned reputation is being trashed by the tuning brigade. Every week I’m sent press releases by companies specialising in aftermarket cosmetic kits for Defenders, and they’re all absolutely dreadful. But people who normally buy Audi TTs and BMW X5s are signing up, turning the poor old Landie into a bit of a glorified tart’s handbag. One of only four or so cars to have made it onto the Sub Zero section of Top Gear’s Cool Wall is now a bit of a fashion victim.

Clearly, the only answer is to put the Defender back into production and restore order.

Forget all those emissions regulations getting in the way. Theresa May needs to instigate a special Defender Reintroduction Bill in the next Queen’s Speech, and make it her top priority once Britain leaves the EU.

In fact, let’s sneak this one in early!

There are some amazing used car deals out there

Look carefully and there are plenty of great deals at nearby car dealerships

SAUSAGES, beer and the Mercedes-Benz 190E. It’s clear the Germans do some things brilliantly, but on the evidence I saw the other night motoring telly isn’t one of them.

While holed up in an Essen hotel room I ended up watching what can best be described as Germany’s answer to Wheeler Dealers. It involved slightly cocky petrolheads going out to some car dealers and trying to buy as much car as they can, but minus any of the messing around with welding machines or Top Gear-esque challenges afterwards (although there was a lot of sitting around with serious expressions and discussing things).

The programme was about as much as fun as reading a Dusseldorf railway timetable on a wet Wednesday morning (I should know – I tried it the following morning). But the show’s basic premise of finding as much motoring fun for about £15k at a nearby car dealer sounded like a laugh.

It turns out that the idea of scouring the region’s car dealerships translates perfectly well into English.

Within striking distance of The Champion’s offices I found all sorts of sub-£15k bargains, starting with a Bentley Eight with 29,000 miles on the clock and full service history. That’s 6.8-litres of craftsmanship for less than a mid-range Focus. Should you not fancy being bankrupted by a Bentley’s fuel bills there’s also a one-owner-from-new, 14-reg Golf GTI, a five-year-old BMW Z4 with just about every option imaginable thrown at it or a Jaguar XF with the 3.0-litre diesel that’s just about frugal enough to stop you weeping at filling stations after a long drive.

All of these cars, and all the Peugeot RCZ, MINI Cooper S and Volkswagen Scirocco deals I found while I was at it, all have one thing in common. They can all be found at car dealerships that are within half an hour’s drive of where you live. Play it right and you could pop out in the morning, have a look around some cars and end up with a shiny slice of petrolhead fun on your driveway that afternoon. Do your homework first, go in with a clear head and you’d be surprised at what you can find.

Unless you’re a German motoring telly presenter of course, in which case I’d recommend you spend it on sausages, beer and Mercedes-Benz 190Es instead.

Top Gear vs Grand Tour isn’t the TV battle you might think

CarFest is proof enough that Chris Evans really is a petrolheadAFTER what feels like an eternity one of the biggest battles in motoring is about to get underway. Or at least that’s what the tabloids want you to think.

In the ginger – sorry, red – corner there’s the new series of Top Gear. Chris Evans has stuck to his vow to resuscitate it post-fracas by the end of May 2016 – but only just, because the new series finally hits our screens on 29 May. Their contender in the increasingly grey-haired corner is the old Top Gear trio, only with a reportedly much bigger budget and a cyberspace colossus backing them.

The script every other newspaper report, motoring website and Facebook commenter want you to read is that Chris’ capers will crash and burn to either horrifically low ratings or the entire team falling out and vowing never to work with each other again by the end of the first series. In the meantime Clarkson’s new show will roll up, convert every TV viewer into an internet evangelist and that’ll be the end of the car show I grew up with.

All of which is utter nonsense, of course.

Top Gear vs (the rather oddly named) Grand Tour just isn’t going to happen, and I haven’t heard a single car nut tell me they’re going to watch one over the other. They’ll watch Chris Evans and Jeremy Clarkson, mainly because one’s on a TV show starting next week and the other’s fronting an online collection of films which is unlikely to start until much later in the year. I can’t be the only one wanting both to succeed, because it means for the first time we’ve got two big budget motoring shows to sit back and enjoy.

Both are fronted by blokes with charisma and a genuine, heartfelt passion for classic cars – if you’ve ever been to one of Chris’ CarFest shows and watched him wandering around gawping at the supercars, you’ll know he’s still one of ‘us’ no matter how much he admits to being overpaid by. Jeremy, Richard and James (who incidentally are publicly rooting for Top Gear’s success) are meanwhile free to do even more of the big, spectacular car adventures they did so well before someone threw a plate of cold meat in the works. I’m keeping an open mind on both, and so should everyone else.

The only thing we’re missing now is a third way for people who want an intelligent, no-nonsense car show with proper reviews about things you might actually buy. Come on Channel 4, bring back Driven