turbodiesel

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.

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The Toyota Avensis has aged better than most Nineties institutions

No matter which generation you go for the Avensis offers dependable - if not terribly exciting - motoring.jpg

WHAT were you doing back in 1998? Chances are if you weren’t listening to Aqua CDs or scrawling on the France ’98 wall chart you got free with The Champion then you’d have been busy fiddling with your Nokia 3210. For such a recent bit of our illustrious history it’s beginning to feel like a very long time ago.

So you’d expect a car from that era to feel positively Palaeolithic by today’s exacting standards of Bluetooth, infotainment consoles and adaptive cruise control, but the S-registered Toyota Avensis I’ve been running around in for the last few months doesn’t. Unlike the flyweight two-seaters I normally run around in this four-door slab of Japanese (albeit Derbyshire-built) anonymity does absolutely nothing to raise the pulse, but on a cold, rainy day there’s a lot to be said for a quiet, repmobile that just starts up and does everything in a discreetly and free of drama. Not bad for something that you can pick up these days for well under a grand.

It is so quietly accomplished that I’ve let it crack on with all the dull jobs without barely warranting a mention here before – but when I ended up being chucked the keys to its 2017 equivalent last weekend I couldn’t help comparing the two. The winner in this case is definitely the Avensis – but I just wasn’t sure which one.

To join the class of 2017 – in this case the mid-range Business Edition, equipped with Toyota’s torque-rich 1.6-litre turbodiesel – you need £22,855, and in return you get plenty of gadgets and safety features that my Mk1 model can only dream of. It’s still very much an Avensis in that does everything in a quiet and not terribly exciting way, but the clearest indication of two decades’ worth of progress is just how much quieter it is. The older car’s not exactly raucous by any means, but the latest Avensis makes you feel like you’ve pressed the ‘mute’ button on entire motorways. As long as you don’t put your foot down it is eerily silent.

It’s also smoother, sharper through the bends and far roomier on the inside. The latest Avensis comes out on top in just about every aspect but you’d be surprised at how well the Nineties original copes with the competition – not bad for a car that costs just a grand, remember. It’s the same with all the big family cars from the turn of the century. Find a good one that’s been looked after and it’ll be just as good a companion as a brand new one.

Certainly it’s a better slice of 1998 nostalgia than digging out that dusty Nokia out from its cupboard. And we’ll give the Aqua CDs a miss…

Alfa Romeo hasn’t beaten BMW with the Giulia, but it has won my heart

The Giulia is the first rear-wheel-drive Alfa Romeo saloon in 25 years

THAT distant noise you can hear is the sound of Alfa Romeo’s Giulia depreciating in value. Or perhaps it’s the sound of interior trim creaking uncomfortably during repeated use.

Or – and I reckon this is a tad more accurate – it’s the gentle groan of people who’ve grown up with Alfas of the past expecting the new arrival to be just as fragile. I can see where they’re coming from; I drove a 1990s GTV6 last year and spent the entire outing wondering what would’ve happened had Milan put as much effort into its interior as it did its V6s. But I didn’t care how squeaky the trim was, because the three litres of chrome-garnished opera up front sounded utterly enchanting.

Whereas the engine in the Giulia I tried didn’t. I’m aware that you can order Italy’s latest 3-Series basher with a twin-turbo, 503bhp monster of a V6 but the version most people are likely to be punting up an outside lane near you is the 2.2-litre turbodiesel, which below 3000rpm isn’t quite as refined as its Audi or BMW equivalents. But put your foot down and the clatter’s quickly replaced by impressive mid-range shove. In 188bhp form it’s an impressively brisk, if not lightning quick, motorway companion.

It’s also the first Alfa saloon in a quarter of a century to send its oomph to the rear wheels – the right wheels, if you want to enjoy driving a big saloon – and the end result’s a car that really lets you revel in its delicately set-up steering and suspension on the right road. It does an accomplished job of devouring A-roads, but the 3-Series is a tiny bit better.

Which is where the Giulia does a fine job of messing up my own verdict – because the BMW is a tiny bit better not just at cornering, but at virtually everything. The Alfa has B-pillars so vast that they make checking your blind spots very hard work, anyone hopping into the rear seats inevitably smacks their scalp on the low roofline, and the German offering is more likely to hold onto its value.

But I’ve never walked away from a 3-Series and given it a lingering second glance, which you do with the Giulia because it is an achingly pretty car. Just like the old 156 and 159 were.

The BMW’s clearly the better car in the same way that Birmingham’s a perfectly sensible place to live. But given the choice I’d have a cottage in the Lake District any day – and a Giulia parked outside, naturally.