VW Polo

Old tyres – surprisingly legal, but potentially lethal

APOLOGIES if I’m about to put you right off your tea – but I’d like to start this week by talking dodgy dinners.

Every so often links to terrible viral websites pop up in my Facebook page (“You won’t BELIEVE this amazing make-up trick Kylie Jenner uses”, “What this teacher told her class will change your life FOREVER”, that sort of thing), and occasionally one of them purports to show what fast food, if left unopened for 30 years, looks like.

It’s something to do with all the moisture being removed from the not-so-tasty grub at the point of manufacture – making it drier than holidaying in Death Valley with a dehydrated Jack Dee, and thus inhospitable to mould – but the result is always that burgers and fries made when Maggie Thatcher was Prime Minister look like they could have been cooked ten minutes ago. It looks weirdly appetising. But would you eat it? Of course you wouldn’t.

I was reminded of this the other day when I went car shopping – and ended up coming home with a 1992 Volkswagen Polo. I reckon that with just one owner on the logbook, 47,000 miles under its belt and 11 months on the MoT certificate still to go it was £800 well spent, and its eager little 1.3-litre engine still sounded like it had plenty of life left in it when it thrummed into life.

But it was a different story for the four little bits connecting Wolfsburg’s engineering to the A59 – the tyres, which really were the automotive equivalent of that decent-looking but dangerously healthy dinner. All four of them had legal amounts of tread left on them, and a pleasing lack of worrying cracks, marks of lumps on the sidewalls, but the first helping of snap understeer on a wet bend at 20mph told a very different story.

Award yourself an extra helping of petrolhead points if you’ve already sussed this one – the tyres may well have been well treaded enough to have been given an MoT inspector’s nod of approval just a few weeks earlier, but they were so ancient that they may as well have been made from copies of The Domesday Book. What that means is that the rubber had hardened after being exposed to years of ultraviolet sunlight, and deteriorated after being subjected to year after year of damp, road muck and temperature changes, to the point that they were near enough useless as means of keeping a car planted in a corner. In fact, the date markings on the tyres revealed that one of them had been on the car from new – that’s 28 years without ever being changed.

So the first job I did after snapping the car up was taking the car into a Southport tyre shop to give it a fresh set of boots, and it now handles and stops a lot better as a result. It’ll make it safer too – not only am I less likely to plough the little Polo into a hedge on any more wet bends, but it’ll bring its stopping distance in an emergency down, too.

I know tyres are boring and grey, but they are your car’s only link to the asphalt underneath. If they’re more than five or six years old, get ‘em changed.

Otherwise you might as well eat 30-year-old fast food – it’ll be about as safe!

Ford Fiesta – still brilliant in a high-tech Britain

THE future can hang on a minute.

I know that we’re supposed to boldly sailing – on a solar-powered catamaran, presumably – into a brave new world of lab-grown, meat-free burgers delivered by drones, but right now there’s still a McDonalds on every busy road and a JD Wetherspoon in virtually every town centre. Your whole life can be conducted on Android and yet sales of vinyl records are up year-on-year. Perhaps most pertinently, for all the talk that electric cars and automation are the future, last time I looked the decidedly analogue Ford Fiesta was still Britain’s best-selling new car.

At the moment all the muttering is about how the humble supermini is about to embrace zero-emissions motoring. Renault’s Zoe has been chipping away at this bit of the market for a while (don’t worry, the Clio’s still very much available), but Vauxhall is being brave and launching its Corsa in all-electric form first, and it’s a similar story for Peugeot’s latest 208.

But while there is a plug-in hybrid Fiesta on the way the current range depends on a blend of rather more familiar petrol and turbodiesel engines, and it feels all the better for it. It’s as bit like Liam Gallagher – yes, it’s the same old act, and yet only last weekend it was good enough to headline Glastonbury.

I know because last weekend I spent 700 miles thumping up and down the British road network in a Zetec-spec EcoBoost – and couldn’t, with the exception of three very minor moans, couldn’t knock it. With the current Fiesta, introduced 18 months ago, it feels like you sit on the seats rather than in them, it still lacks mid-range thump in one-litre form, and on the motorway the ride’s a bit more fidgety than I’d ideally like, but that’s about it. In other respect Ford’s taken what it had with the 2009-era Fiesta, revisited absolutely everything, and quietly made it better rather than reinventing the wheel.

So while the turbocharged three cylinder engine still revels in a few revs to get results, it managed to average a fairly hefty fifty to the gallon – and I wasn’t on any sort of eco run. On the motorways it was long-legged enough to make light work of a voyage to Scotland and back – and when it wasn’t it could still entertain me on the B-roads, offering just enough feedback through its chunky, three-spoke steering wheel. Even the little things won me over; plenty of superminis integrate their stereo systems into a touchscreen system these days but the Fiesta gives you old-fashioned buttons beneath it as well, so you could flick between Joy Division and The Cure without losing the sat nav.

I suspect the reason the Ford Fiesta, even when every other new car is a crossover, electric car or plug-in hybrid, is still Britain’s biggest seller is because it’s ruddy good at what it does. The Suzuki Swift might match it when comes to generating grins, VW’s Polo has a more premium feel and the Fiat 500 is a lot more charming, but it’s tricky to think of a better all-rounder.

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…