volkswagen

Volkswagen’s new camper van is massive – but that’s a good thing

The VW Grand California is a lot bigger than its more fashionable brother - but that's not a bad thing

REGULAR readers will know that earlier this year I bought a house for the first time – but I’m beginning to wish I’d gone to Volkswagen rather than my local estate agent.

That’s because for all the fanfare over finally making a GTI version of the Up and the new engines being fitted to the T-Roc and Touareg off-roaders the Germans have finally given their official backing to something the aftermarket modifiers have been doing for years. They’ve turned to the biggest van they make as the basis for their latest campervan – and the result genuinely sounds like something that should be next to The Champion’s property ads rather than popping up here, in a column about cars.

Having driven the latest Crafter a couple of times I can confirm that it might as well be a Passat-on-stilts once you’re behind the wheel, but you’d be better off arranging a viewing of the Grand California, which goes on sale here next January, than taking it for a test drive. It has – deep breath – a double bed, bunk beds for the little ones, two skylights, a front door with an electrically-operated step to help you get in and a mosquito net to keep unwanted visitors out, Bluetooth speakers you can control with a smartphone, a separate bathroom with motion-activated lights, a solar panel on the roof, a satellite dish and a WiFi router. And a cuddly toy. Probably.

But the reason why it catches my eye – even in a week when a Welshman got into serious trouble for breaking 33 speed limits in a rented Lamborghini while on holiday – is because it surely is a much better bet for travel lovers than its smaller California sibling. Forget the fact that the older offering’s a bit of a campsite fashion statement and the direct descendant of the hippy-endorsed VW campers of the Sixties, because the brutal truth is that it’s still bit cosy if there are more than two of you staying in it.

Basing the Grand California on the rather larger Crafter – so essentially, it’s a Mercedes Sprinter van given the full Kirsty ‘n’ Phil treatment – sounds like a much more sensible idea, because you’ll be able to chill out in your air-conditioned rear quarters and catch up with Netflix while folk in smaller VW campers are still banging their heads on the roof.

The only thing Volkswagen hasn’t announced on the Grand California is the price – but you can expect it to be rather more than the £46,625 its smaller brother starts at. Maybe I can apply for a mortgage to cover it…

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There’s one thing worse than singing Angels while drunk – driving

This is the best choice of car for Friday nights - unless you fancy getting nicked

THERE are several things, I’ve long maintained, that I can do marginally better when I’m slightly smashed.

Singing Angels, for instance. There is not a chance on earth that I’d attempt the high notes on Robbie Williams’ teary-eyed ballad in the cold, sober light of day, but given a single malt or three I might just be tempted to belt it out in front of a pub full of strangers on a Friday night. I’m dreadful at pool too, but I remain steadfastly convinced that my ability to master a cue improves ever so slightly midway through pint number three.

But my control of a Citroen C1 – or any other car, for that matter – most definitely doesn’t, so I’m amazed that so many people still attempt it. In 2016, the most recent year for which figures are available, some 59,000 of us either took a breathalyser test and failed or simply refused to bother altogether. That means that on average there are at least 160 people a day taking to Her Majesty’s highway who are convinced that they are X Factor-worthy pool champions. If they drive as badly as they sing, that’s a terrifying thought.

Which is why the Department for Transport is cracking down on it by announcing a competition – and it’s not for who can down the most Frosty Jacks before hopping behind the wheel of a Volkswagen Polo. The £350,000 prize will go to whichever company invents a mobile breathalyser so accurate that it can determine your smashed-ness without a subsequent trip to the nearest police station, and have it fitted it to a police car near you within the next 18 months. The lucky few on the raggedy edge of being hammered will no longer be able to sober up in the back of a marked Vauxhall Insignia, en-route to walking (well, swaying) free by the skin of their teeth. It will mean you’ll be done for drink-driving, well and comprehensively, on the spot.

Bring it on, I say. I’ll defend to the death my right to wander into a nightclub while a teeny bit tipsy and dance to the Grease Megamix on a work night out in a way that I’ll almost certainly regret the following morning, but no one in that state should be behind the wheel. If more accurate breathalysers make it a cast-iron certainty that you’ll get nicked, then that’s got to a good thing.

And anyway, there are plenty of cars that you can happily commandeer if belting through Angels badly is your thing. They’re called taxis.

Milton Keynes is the venue to win motoring hearts and minds

Ford has developed technology that can sense empty parking spaces
A LONG time ago the blistering heat of the California desert or a fortnight spent in the bitter cold of the Arctic circle were what counted when it came to developing your new car. But it turns out that the latest battleground for motoring supremacy is… Milton Keynes.

Ford dispatched a fleet of Mondeos fitted with some very clever experimental equipment there and – in the best traditions of Tomorrow’s World – a man with a beard and a tweed jacket to attempt to explain their cunning new plan. Essentially, they’ve sent a team of drivers out into this glorious 1960s vision of a New Town and asked them simply to park somewhere. Which, if you’ve ever been to Milton Keynes on a busy Monday morning, can be easier said than done.

If all goes to plan, the Fiesta or Focus you buy in a few years’ time will be able to scan the car park quicker you can, letting you know exactly where that elusive empty space is before the irritating birk in the BMW 1-Series swoops in and steals it at the last second. It’s important stuff; apparently most of us motoring types lose a day a year looking for parking spaces.

Naturally, Volkswagen wasn’t going to let Ford take all the credit for solving our parking problems forever, and just a few days later put out a press release pointing out that it’s been honing its Park Assist system for more than 20 years across three generations of tech, and is now working on an app that’ll talk to your Golf and let you know where all the empty – and better still, cheap – spaces are.

The fact that the combined brainpower of at least two motoring giants is finally being applied to making parking less irritating is wonderful, but what I’m really looking forward to is seeing the Fiestas and Polos of a decade’s time solving the really annoying problems of car parks. Wouldn’t it be great, for instance, if they could fire lasers at all those off-roaders parked diagonally across three spaces? Or have anyone who clips your bodywork with a carelessly-opened door automatically arrested on the spot and sentenced to four years’ hard labour for automotive neglect? I’d go out and buy a new Golf tomorrow if it knew what to do when the ticket reader at a multi-storey stops working, leaving you trapped with six impatient shoppers stuck behind you.

What I’d suggest to Ford is that carries on its important research in the interests of helping the British public by moving its crack team of Mondeo-driving scientists a bit further north than Milton Keynes.

If they – or Volkswagen’s researchers, for that matter – can solve the stresses of parking in Southport town centre or the Skelmersdale Concourse for good, then their millions will have been worthwhile.

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.

The Saab 9000 Turbo is dead. Long live the Kia Stinger

Kia has tough competition from the Germans for its new Stinger sports saloon

MANY have tried, but none have succeeded. Who’d have thought the Saab 9000 Turbo would be such a tricky act to follow?

It’s a curious (and not particularly lucrative) corner of the car market to capture; the people who are in the market for a tarmac-snorting, junior-sized sports saloon that ISN’T a BMW, AMG-tweaked Mercedes of hotted-up Audi. This particularly elusive species of motorist is after something with just enough cachet to cut it outside a nearby golf club (so that’s virtually every fast Ford and sporty Vauxhall out), and is hung up enough about long-term reliability to give anything made by Alfa Romeo a wide berth. Not entirely fairly, I’ve always reckoned.

Just think about all those cars over the years that have offered a 9000 Turbo-esque premise but never really taken off (no jet fighter puns intended). The Lexus IS-F, MG ZT260, Mazda6 MPS, Volvo S60R, Chrysler 300C, Volkswagen Passat W8, for instance. For all their leather seats, ample equipment levels and muted growls from their exhausts none have ever really managed to convincingly win over the anything-but-a-blummin’-BMW brigade. In fact you could argue that Saab itself never nailed it either, given the Swedes ran out of cash five years ago.

But that isn’t going to stop Kia giving it their best shot anyway. Their new BMW-baiter arrives here in January and it’s already onto a winner because it has a cool name; it might not be posh and German, but you can at least tell your mates that you drive a Stinger. Which it makes it sound like an American muscle car.

It also picks up the Saab’s old trick of using turbos to rustle up the sort of mid-range thump that comes in handy on a motorway’s outside lane; in the range-topping 3.3-litre V6 there are two of them, and they send 365bhp to the rear wheels. The upshot is that you’ll end up surging to 60mph in 4.7 seconds and onto a top speed of 168mph. Yes, I know that’s academic when you can only legally do 70mph, but when you bear in mind that sports saloon ownership is basically a better funded version of Top Trumps for grown-ups the big Kia comes across quite well.

For the same sort of money as a BMW 340i you can have a four-door saloon that’s bigger, better equipped, quicker and more powerful – and it’s styled by the same bloke who did the original Audi TT, just for good measure.

So it’s a no-brainer that your next sports saloon’s going to be a Kia Stinger, then? Nope, didn’t think it was. The BMW brochure’s just over there, seeing as you’re asking…

Mercedes X-Class – the perfect car for Southport’s golfers

The new Mercedes X-Class could be the wheels of choice for the next Open

IT FEELS like the population of Southport’s halved over the last few days. Apparently all the people who’ve just vacated the resort were here for something called ‘the golf’ – and I don’t mean the Volkswagen hatchback, either.

The one thing that did strike me during the North West’s moment in the international sporting spotlight was that virtually everyone seemed to travel to the Royal Birkdale in either a series of commandeered Stagecoach double-deckers, or in a black Mercedes. It felt like every other car was a black E-Class with tinted rear windows.

The Benz blokes have obviously thrown a lot at The Open, which is why it surprised me enormously that it didn’t bring along its latest model. It claims the X-Class is the first pick-up truck from a premium manufacturer, but that’s not entirely the case.

Firstly, the posh pick-up from a luxury carmaker isn’t a new idea, because both Cadillac and Lincoln have already tried it (albeit with virtually no success, which is why they never sold them over here). Secondly, the trimmings might be Mercedes’ finest but the bones most definitely aren’t; keep it quiet, but the X-Class is essentially a Nissan Navara. So I suspect all the building site operatives who actually buy pick-ups are probably going to stick with the cheaper Japanese original.

So who’s going to buy the X-Class? Originally I’d suspected it’d be perfect for anyone who appears in or produces hip hop videos, but I can’t imagine there are too many of those in Formby or Parbold (Straight Outta Crosby does have a nice ring to it, though). Nor is it going to appeal to the sort of managing director types who normally go for big, German off-roaders, because the ML-Class already does it without relying on pick-up truck underpinnings.

But – and this is why I think Mercedes missed a trick at The Open – it has plenty of potential as a golfer’s chariot of choice. It has a sufficiently posh badge to mix it with the Jaguars and BMWs in the club car park, more than enough room inside to take four of your chums out for a quick round, and with it being a pick-up there’s plenty of room out back for all the sets of clubs you’ll ever need. Pack carefully and you could even bring your own golf buggy with you!

I can’t wait for the golf to come back to Southport, because the resort is going to be rammed with X-Class Mercs.

Drive the new Volkswagen Polo? I’d rather take it jogging

There is a reason why the new Polo is roomier than the old one

I’VE LONG suspected that jogging is just a sweatier form of walking. I’ll cheerily wave at people powering past on yet another 10k, but I’m quite content that simply strolling to the nearest pub is exercise aplenty.

But then a colleague – who’s practically taken me on as some sort of flabby protégé –  insisted I give it a go. Worryingly, I’ve found this whole moving quickly without a car lark to be surprisingly good fun.
I feel better for myself after every run, and I’m already beginning to see the results on my waistline. The idea is that I’ll get fitter, build up my speed and stamina – and then I’ll invite the new Volkswagen Polo along too, because boy does it need it.

By the looks of things Germany’s supermini of choice has been spent too long watching The Jeremy Kyle show with a can of Stella in one hand and a freshly cooked Fray Bentos in the other. By Volkswagen’s own admission it’s taller and wider than the outgoing model, and bumper-to-bumper it’s 94mm longer, which is like going up three waist sizes in car terms. What’s more the latest press packs favourably compare its dimensions to how big the Golf was in the Nineties but don’t mention weight once, presumably because the Polo’s scared of stepping on the scales and screaming in horror.

Which is a shame, because while the new Polo looks like the Golf (which is a good thing) and builds on 2009’s European Car of the Year (ditto), it’s getting increasingly hard to relate to it as a small car. The gap between the new boy and the pint-sized Up is bigger than you’d imagine.

But then the Polo isn’t the only one looking a tad porky these days. The other day I had a nose around Nissan’s new Micra and it is vast compared to the lovably cute bubble-shaped ones learner drivers used to have crashes in, and while I love the looks of Renault’s latest Clio I had to conclude the 900cc engine in the one I borrowed felt a bit strained because it’s a far bigger car than its predecessors. Virtually all of today’s superminis are blobbier than they used to be – very few are lighter, smaller or nimbler.

But I can guarantee that while small cars have got bigger the multi-storey at the Concourse in Skelmersdale hasn’t expanded, and nor have any of Southport’s parking spaces. If you really do need to squeeze into those awkwardly tight spaces outside supermarkets, you’d be better off slipping down a size and buying something like Ford’s Ka+.

That or jog down to the shops

Adaptive Cruise Control is too clever by half – but I’m hooked

Driving a Golf on motorways can involve a leap of faith

AN ERRANT Transit van tears off the slip road and onto the motorway, straight into your path. You’re hurtling towards Ford’s finest at bang-on 70mph, acutely aware that a nasty collision isn’t a million miles away. Your right foot quivers nervously towards the brake pedal – yet you do absolutely nothing.

This was me last Friday, taking a leap of motoring faith on the M11. Despite being completely and painfully aware of everything around me I had to resist every ounce of brainpower telling me to tap the middle pedal. Even though I was in full control I’d delegated the decision to a car, and this worried me a lot.

I’m by no means a brilliant driver and I’m sure any half-decent petrolhead would make mincemeat of me on a track day, but logic dictates that a Volkswagen Golf TDI BlueMotion can’t be as smart as I am. Except it is, of course.

A few femtoseconds before I haul in the anchors an unguided hand works out Mr Daily Star Reader in his Transit is tootling along at 10mph less than I am and gently slows the Golf down, working out what the safe distance from the van’s rump is and keeping me at it. Any instant where he puts his foot down is matched by a gentle throb from the Golf’s turbodiesel as it speeds up. If he slows down, the VW slows down. It’s automotive witchcraft, and I’m a convert.

I know that Adaptive Cruise Control has been around for ages – Jaguar was fitting it to the XJ when Liberty X were all the rage – but it’s only now that it’s making its way into mass-market cars. It turns an invention that was frankly rubbish into something that genuinely makes long-distance driving easier.

The only time ‘dumb’ cruise control, as I now call it, works is on a motorway at 3am. Try it at any other time and you’re either frantically thumbing the buttons like a Playstation-addicted teenager, or stomping on the brakes to prevent your car being involved in a rear-end shunt. The Golf’s adaptive system turned it into a guided missile, able to adapt instantly to its surroundings.

You absolutely have to be on top of things – it won’t slam on if Mr Transit does up front – but it meant my feet could take it easy on a five-hour slog up from Kent the other night. Normally I’m a bit resistant to new tech, but Adaptive Cruise Control is genuinely brilliant.

Mass-market cars are cleverer than ever, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The Golf’s already asked if it can write next week’s column…

The Volkswagen Scirocco is part of a dying breed

The VW Scirocco is now part of a dying breed of car

I DON’T know if the car world has a Grim Reaper – I imagine he’d look a bit like The Stig in some black robes – but he must be rubbing his hands with glee at the moment.

Not long ago I wrote about the death knell being sounded for Skoda’s Yeti, but now an entire automotive species is facing extinction; the fun, affordable coupé. Rumour has it that once Volkswagen’s Scirocco is put out to pasture, it won’t be replaced. Which for a fan of small two-doors is a big deal, because it’s pretty much the only one left.

Cast your mind back to the days when Tony Blair was eyeing up Number Ten and you were spoilt for choice if you had roughly £20,000 and a generous fleet manager prepared to offer you something sleeker than a Mondeo. Ford had the trendy Puma, and was in the process of replacing the Probe with the Cougar. Smile at a Vauxhall salesman and he’d rustle up a Tigra or Calibra, and that’s before we get to all the sleek two-doors Peugeot, Fiat, Honda, Toyota and just about everyone else had to offer. There were 20 different coupés on offer, and they were all exciting in their own way.

But now there’s the Scirocco, and that’s about it. Sure, there are a couple of three-door hatchbacks flaunting the c-word on their bootlids – and they’re coupés in name only, really – but nowadays you have to venture more upmarket before you arrive at the Toyota GT86, Ford Mustang and BMW 4-series. Hardly the sort of affordable offerings that give Mr Family Man hope.

The world needs coupés as much now as it did when the Ford Capri and the Opel Manta were the top dogs. They offer a welcome injection of panache into a motoring landscape dominated by boring family hatchbacks and me-too off-roaders, but because their underpinnings are ordinary they’re affordable, reliable and easy to service. So what if they’re a bit cramped in the back?

Perhaps we should persuade Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn that as part of their election pledges there should be state-funded grants for people prepared to brighten up the landscape with two-door coupés.

Alternatively, just buy a Volkswagen Scirocco while you still can.

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.