Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Evo Magazine

Over the past week or so life has been interesting. The insurance company finally decided I did need to buy a new car... so I did; my TVR suffered its first (pseudo) breakdown; I had a taste of the true Alfa experience and I carried out my first solo-roadtest.

I'll no doubt cover all of these in due course, but for now I'm here to tell you about the other highlight from the past seven days: Evo.

I've been a reader since virtually the first issue and their epicurean approach to cars (excuse the phrase, but it just seems right...) plus the top quality writing and superb photography has always made it one of my favourite magazines. And last week I finally got a chance to work with them.

My two days at Evo Towers passed all too briefly, but in between picking Peter Tomalin's brains on all matters journalistic, debating my future car choice with Ian Everleigh and proving that a fully grown human being does actually fit in the back of the RX8 long-termer, I got a chance to publish some articles. Seeing my name on one of their pages was a real buzz and I have the following as a (virtual) souvenier:




There was a strange sense of familiarity with everyone in the office. I'd never met any of them before, but the names (and in some cases faces) were already well known.

I almost felt a little star struck... Maybe that's a sign I need to get out a little more, but for me it was an exciting experience. They are, of course, simply professionals who are good at what they do, but the Evo staff - along with their counterparts on several other publications - are household names to petrolheads in a far greater way than the nobodies filling our screens on reality TV.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A fortnight with a Corsa 1.2 Club

The fastest type of car, so they say, is a hire car. Well, I’m here to tell you that ‘they’ are wrong. At least when it’s a 1.2-litre Vauxhall Corsa like my current hack.

Initial impressions aren’t actually too bad. The Corsa bears the clean lines of a contemporary small car, with hints of the Fiat Punto and the new Ford Fiesta - nothing revolutionary, but a pleasant enough exterior. Inside, it’s much the same situation. The basic layout is fairly conventional, although there are some nicer-than-average materials and neon backlighting system for the dash that just about manages to avoid looking too ‘Fast and Furious’. For an entry-level car, the kit is fairly good too, with a decent stereo and air conditioning as standard.

It’s not all good news though, the front seat belts are positioned so far back that even tall drivers require a degree of contortion to reach them. The stereo volume control requires a million turns to produce any audible difference and the boot is one of the smallest I’ve ever seen. This car also has a distinct tendency to steam up in the wet, which only a good blast from the air con is able to cure.

Yet by far the most annoying thing has to be the indicators. The spring loaded stalks don’t actually stay in position, making it quite difficult to tell whether you’re in the short or prolonged flash modes and the self-cancelling seems to be a little hit and miss too. As a result, a typical manoeuvre begins as you indicate out, continues with you indicating for longer than you intend and ends with an unwanted flash from the opposite indicator as you try and cancel the original one. It’s a small matter, but a source of constant annoyance.

Once on the move, another issue presents itself... The Corsa’s rear windows allow for reasonable visibility to your left, but look over your right shoulder and the view is dominated by the rear pillar. This asymmetry of vision blocks off your view just where you need it in the blind spot, making the Corsa noticeably harder to manoeuvre than some of its competitors.

These gripes aside, it remains a car of contrasts. It cruises reasonably quietly on light throttle loads, but put your foot down and the noise can become harsh and intrusive. It’s not as if this is a rare occurrence either – the 16v engine needs to be revved to extract any power and yet it still never satisfactorily overcomes the Corsa’s mass. On several occasions I’ve ended up not in fifth or even fourth gear, but down to third on motorway inclines. The other downside is that fuel economy suffers when you have to drive it like that – fuel stops are more frequent (and indeed expensive) than expected. Not surprisingly I find myself longing to have the Saxo back – at 805kgs it was nearly a third of a ton lighter, despite having roughly the same power output.

Corners are a similar situation. The Corsa comes with rather lifeless power-assisted steering and rolly-poly suspension, yet somehow it still possesses a rather firm ride over small bumps and ridges. This isn’t bad enough to be a problem, but it seems at odds with the amount of body roll. It’s not a driver’s car then, but push the baby Vauxhall a little harder and you’ll discover it actually grips tenaciously. Perhaps there’s some hope for the VXR version after all.

But what of this 1.2 Club model? Well, despite having few areas where it truly excels, there’s not a lot which would disappoint you as a no-thrills run-around. The driving experience may leave somewhat to be desired on the open road, but there’s nothing that would cause alarm in its natural habitat of suburbia. As cars of this class go, the cabin aesthetics are pretty reasonable and, as long as you’re not going up hill, it’s a relatively soothing place to be on the motorway. There’s certainly more of a quality feel than the Vauxhalls of old, but it doesn’t really go far enough to single the Corsa out in this very competitive market.


On the whole I’d say I’m a fairly conventional petrolhead. I like the usual things - rumbling V8s, perfect driving roads and absolutely anything that’s red and Italian. There is, however, one respect in which I differ from the stereotype… I’ve never been especially excited by Formula One. The last race I can really recall was Suzuka in 1996, when Damon Hill won the driver’s championship. Since then, the only thing about F1 that’s really entertained me has been Max Mosley’s fancy dress shenanigans.

I must admit I’d started to tar all motor sport with the same brush. I enjoy any chance to compete in it, but I’ve never been hugely inclined to watch twenty overpaid professionals mince around the track in a procession. I couldn’t really see its appeal as a spectator sport. Then, over the weekend, I caught my first British Touring Car Race in about ten years and it seems there have been a few changes.

Gone are John Cleland’s Vauxhall Cavalier and Rickard Rydell’s Volvo 850. What’s more, the dominant team this season have been running – wait for it – a diesel engine. There’s no doubt things have moved on from the late 90’s, however one thing remains; it’s still great fun.

I switched on during the first of the three televised races from Snetterton, right at the moment that privateer Seat driver Adam Jones overtook the BMW of Rob Collard through a borderline-existent gap on the entry to the Russell Bend chicane. At this point in F1 the drivers would have eased off and paused to conduct a brief risk assessment. Not in the BTCC however, as Collard retook the Seat with an equally bold move at the next corner and a further three cars streamed through. This wasn’t the end of it either – Jones came back to recover three of the lost places in a series of bumper-to-bumper clashes.

The next race played out in equally dramatic fashion. First I watched five cars streaming under the bridge side-by-side at The Esses, all vying for position as Tom Chiltern nudged Fabrizio Giovanardi off the track. Two laps later and it’s Tom Onslow-Cole and Andy Jordan’s turn as they piled into Sears three abreast with Adam Jones’ Seat. The scraps continued throughout the field. On the last lap, Giovanardi and Colin Turkington were still trading paint as the chequered flag fell. Jason Plato may have romped off with the win up front, but the director concentrated on the battle behind and the entire population of my living room were on the edge of their seats.

The top eight finishers from race two started in reverse order for the final showdown, with the all-conquering Plato in eighth place. He was slow off the line and dropped several places as lights went out, which would made for an interesting drive, had engine problems not put him out of the running shortly after. Up ahead, Tom Onslow-Cole was locked in battle with Stephen Jelley. After swapping places four times in one lap, Onslow-Cole came out on top and proceeded to have a go at Turkington in 5th place, overtaking him at the beginning of lap 12. Meanwhile, further down the field, Adam Jones and Rob Collard were at it again as Mat Jackson took the chequered flag ahead.

It was an hour of my life thoroughly well spent and far more entertaining the average F1 race. Yet some things, it seems, never change. As he answered the first question of his post-race interview, Jackson began with racing driver’s favourite coverall phrase: “For sure…” I’m not entirely clear what, if anything, they’re always sure about but it seems to be a standard opener to any racing answer. Maybe it’s some sort of involuntary response? A delay-tactic perhaps? Either way, I’m sure about one thing – real racing is more fun than Max Mosley in a gimp suit.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Decisions, decisions...

The first week of my car buying mission is drawing to a close and, on the upside, at least I've reached one conclusive decision.

I must admit to having something of a car buying habit. I’ve never actually managed to kill one before, but I’ve never kept one for more than about a year either. You see, there are just so many exciting possibilities and so little time. With the Saxo gone, I need something to get me moving again before the insurance company ask for their hire car back.

This should be simple, but there are a few mitigating factors. Firstly, I have a 65-mile commute, which gives me a simple choice of either low fuel consumption or bankruptcy. Secondly, when I’m not driving cars, writing about cars or arguing about cars, a good percentage of my remaining time is devoted to cycling; so I need something big enough to accommodate my bike. Finally - although there is probably an oil-burning MPV out there somewhere which suits those needs - I also want something that’ll provide a bit of fun on those rare occasions I escape from the confines of the M25.

Looking into it a bit further, I set a target of 40mpg for petrol contenders; anything diesel would have to significantly better this, due to the difference in fuel costs. I also decided on a maximum budget of around £7,000 (second-hand). The rest, however, is all to play for.

My first thought had been some kind of warm-hatch. The idea of a Fiat Panda 100HP appealed, as did a Suzuki Swift Sport. Ford’s evergreen Sportka also sprang to mind along with the (previous generation) Fiesta Zetec-S and the Focus. I even contemplated an e36 3-series.

The list rapidly began to shrink. It became obvious that the Swift was going to be out of my price range to purchase; the consensus amongst BMW owners on the internet forums was that you’d be lucky to get 30mpg out of the six-cylinder coupes and the Sportka was deemed too thrashy for motorway miles. Meanwhile there were a couple of additions – the Fiesta’s coupe cousin, the Puma, caught my eye. Citroen’s Xsara VTR seemed to combine economy with low insurance premiums and the Alfa Romeo 147 JTD crept in… although largely because it was an Alfa (I’ll have mine in red please).

I’ve now visited a few dealerships and, on the whole, the test drives have yet to produce any startling results. The Focus 1.6 Zetec (chosen for its economy) comes with a large boot and handles well, but feels somewhat lethargic in a straight line. The Fiesta Zetec-S feels far more lively, but concedes a certain amount in running costs and comes with a slightly dubious boy racer image. The Puma meanwhile… feels like a Fiesta Zetec-S.

The big shock for me was the Panda 100HP. I’d expected to love this car and face a worrying dilemma about spending twice the price of the other contenders on something barely big enough to hold my bike. In reality, I found it a bit of an anti-climax. Its 1.4-litre 16-valve engine, although willing enough, is nothing exceptional, the cabin is awash with cheap plastics and, to me, the concrete damping is simply a step too far. While the crashy ride is merely an annoyance in town, on a bumpy B-road it becomes bad enough to genuinely spoil the Panda’s composure.

To be fair, our test route may not have helped: “Now you’ll really have a chance to get a feel for it on the back roads” commented the salesman at one point as he directed me down 500yds of pothole-strewn 40mph limit with a dawdling Volvo in front. I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic.

Even on a more suitable surface, the Panda felt good rather than great. For my purposes this rules it out. Being a relatively recent model, second-hand examples are still twice the price of something like a Puma, and it simply isn’t twice the car. It may be a great buy in the future, but for now I’ll resolve to let someone else take the depreciation hit.

So what about the others? Well, I remain undecided. An unmolested Fiesta Zetec-S would be a great car, offering a tempting combination of low running costs and reasonable space, but most look like they've ram-raided Halfords. The Puma is essentially a Zetec-S-R and good ones are easier to find, but it loses out on some of the hatchback's practicality. So far I've yet to try a Xsara VTR or Alfa 147. In fact, the list keeps growing as I've just seen an Alfa Romeo 156 JTD Sportwagon so gorgeous it's made me start dribbling.

Like I said: So many possibilities, so little time.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The great scrapyard in the sky

It had to happen eventually. I’ve evaded them for years, but this week the North London Kamikaze Driving Squad finally found me, and my trusty Citroen was written off as I sat waiting in traffic.

The car proved no match for the current-generation Astra that collided with it; while the Vauxhall bore little more than a scratch, the Saxo was twisted, scarred and broken. Coolant gushed from underneath and the misaligned steering creaked and groaned as I limped it back to my house. The time, it seemed, had come for W169 OFJ. In contrast, I was physically unhurt, but the end to eight years of incident-free motoring and the loss of my no claims bonus was a bitter sting. The only small consolation was that the woman who had brought about its untimely demise was apologetic and very amiable – I couldn’t deal with an argument that early on a Monday morning. Fortunately, she too was unhurt.

And so, the following morning, the salvage company came to collect the first car I had ever driven. It had come from my mother and seen me through university, various house moves, several memorable holidays and a couple of less clearly recalled music festivals. It was like a family pet. Still, this didn’t seem to matter to the lorry driver as he thrashed it onto the top layer of the car transporter. Just as quickly as it had appeared on the forecourt all those years ago, it was gone.

I wasn’t deprived of transport for long however. Somewhere in the insurance application my inner-scrooge had forgotten to untick the hire car box and I was now rather glad of this. Frankly it wasn’t TVR weather (despite a hastily purchased outdoor cover in case I had to commute in the S3). Instead, I found myself presented with a Vauxhall Corsa, less than 24 hours after the smash. I’ll discuss the relative merits of that at a later date, but suffice to say, it has got me moving. What’s faintly disturbing is that even with the traumatic events of the previous day and a less-than-enthralling 79bhp to look forward to, I was still very eager to go and have a play. It’s just possible I need to get out more.

Looking ahead, I obviously now have a requirement for a new daily driver. In truth, the excuse to legitimately scour Autotrader, rather than just window shopping for once, has proved the biggest consolation… Now, like an automotive Jack Bauer, I have just twenty four days to locate my new car. That's likely to be a topic in itself, but rest assured I shall keep you informed.

RIP Saxo…

Friday, July 4, 2008

The good, the bad and a MINI adventure

Despite my journalistic aspirations, I currently have a ‘day job’ in the motor industry and as part of this I get to attend an annual test day with various cars to play with. It makes for an enjoyable afternoon – that one day each year – and it also produces some interesting observations.

This year was no exception, and what’s more I found myself having to renounce some of my automotive prejudices.

BMW 120D M-Sport
The first thing I notice about the 120D, queuing to exit the car park, is the stop-start technology kicking in. It’s faintly unnerving the first time you come to a halt and the engine dies, but it springs reassuringly back into life as you go to pull away, cutting down on both fuel consumption and emissions as it does so. The next observation is the chunky, well-weighted feel to the steering. Unfortunately, once you get out onto the open road, it doesn’t offer quite as much feedback as you’d like – it feels reasonable, but strangely artificial.

It’s not just the steering either. The M-Sport suspension feels somewhat under-damped on the bumpy, cambered B-roads of our test route and then there’s the engine… Make no mistake; it produces plenty of power, giving the 120D impressive mid-range punch, but the delivery feels disappointingly ‘old school diesel’. The torque comes in one big lump with little before or after and rather lacklustre response. It’s not bad for a repmobile, but I’d expected my first trip out in a premium diesel to be something more. I can’t help thinking that the Ford Focus concedes very little to it overall (and betters it in some areas) for significantly less money.

BMW 320D Auto
As a sanity-check I try the 120’s bigger brother, the 320D, and despite being a larger (and presumably heavier) car it actually feels rather better. The floaty feeling is gone and ironically it doesn’t seem like such a big car. The steering remains somewhat aloof, considering it’s not dealing with the driven wheels, but suddenly BMW feels like it would better its competitors dynamically, which as ‘the ultimate driving machine’, is exactly what it should do.

The engine performs much the same as it did in the 120D, yet its torquey delivery works somewhat better with the auto-box; delivering crisp gear changes and a smooth pullaway. It’s not without fault though – there’s a rather clumsy kick-down and the manual mode is typically slow. Despite this, I was (as a fan of lighter, more compact cars) surprised to note it feels like a better overall package than its smaller sibling.

Ford Fiesta ST

Next up is the feisty Fiesta ST. From the word go, everything from the not-so-subtle bonnet stripes to the overtly sporty exhaust note feels like a statement of intent – it's certainly not a car for the meek.

The free-revving, responsive powerplant pulls eagerly and, while you'd hardly call it refined, it’s certainly entertaining. The same goes for the handling, which offers a sharp turn-in, decent throttle-adjustability and reasonable levels of steering feedback. It feels like an old school hot hatch, albeit with corresponding levels of traction and lateral grip available. I’m undecided as to whether this is a good thing – you see, while the Fiesta is good fun, it lacks the pace of today’s super-hatches. Its manic character sometimes feels like a sheep in wolf’s clothing in the era of 200bhp Clios.

Mazda MX-5 2.0i Roadster Coupe
It’s hard to believe, but the world’s best selling small sports car has been around in various guises for two decades now. The simple formula of engine at the front, driven wheels at the back and relatively little in between has certainly proved successful in the past – I used to own a mk1, but this is my first chance to drive the current mk3 version.

My initial impressions aren’t great to be honest. Come the first roundabout I find myself questioning whether they’ve left the dampers out – it certainly feels a lot softer than the old cars. The sharp turn-in remains, but somehow it no longer seems to follow up that early promise. The steering feels a little woolly and distinctly light on feedback. To compound matters, the ESP system is irritatingly intrusive. Fortunately disabling it not only cures the problem, but proves that (in the dry at least) there's plenty of extra grip when you venture beyond the confines of its nannying.

There’s nothing to fear when you do so either - it remains a fundamentally well-balanced car and the new chassis feels significantly more rigid than before, with none of the earlier models’ scuttle shake. The 2-litre engine seems to have lost the some of the earlier unit's character, but it makes up for this with noticeably more torque, particularly at low revs. It doesn’t just go better either – the brakes offer a significant improvement in stopping power – admittedly they also lose some of their precision, but the trade-off seems more than worth it overall.

So, the MX-5 may have lost some of its edge, but it remains virtually unique as a low cost, front-engined, rear wheel drive sports car. It’s frustrating that the new chassis and gutsy engine clearly have untapped potential, but it’s still an entertaining drive and the sort of ‘fun car’ we could do with seeing more of.

Toyota Aygo
There's something a little bit funky about the Toyota Aygo's interior. Admittedly, the cheap plastic faintly reminds me of that inside a portaloo, but the fresh design, complete with a curious bug-eyed tachometer is conspicuously contemporary. Let's not forget this is the product that sponsors Channel 4's youth programming and one that was famously given to assorted motoring journos to play football with. So, the Aygo is young and athletic then?

Fire up the 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine and, sure enough, it has a pleasingly sporty rasp. It revs freely too, but sadly, actually getting the car moving is another matter. It features quite possibly the most rubbery gear change I've ever encountered and just finding first is a challenge. Once on the move, its soft suspension and over-assisted steering conclusive dissolve any notions of it being a junior hot hatch. To be fair, that's not really what it's intended to be, but worse is to come. For a city car, the Aygo's long gearing makes it feel sluggish at low speed, and on the open road the engine's peaky nature feels strangely at odds with the stodgy chassis.

It's not fundamentally a bad car – at least not for the market it's intended – but it fails to be anything more. For anyone who really wants no-thrills city-bound transport that much I'd strongly recommend a weekly travelcard. For those seeking something a little more exciting (and indeed versatile) the next car may well hold the answer…

MINI Cooper D
The last car I decide to climb into is a MINI and, to be honest, I'm not sure what to expect. I've always had a soft spot for the original Mini and an equally strong distain for the current retro trend in car design, not to mention a healthy degree of scepticism about diesel performance cars. This is my first time at the wheel of the 21st century MINI and part of me hopes it won't be that good – secretly, I already doubt that will be the case.

Sitting in, I cringe slightly at the gigantic central speedometer – it's a stylistic link to the original car that seems to be growing with each passing year to emphasise its Mini-ness. Fortunately the rest of the interior is different - there's a quality feel to it which genuinely sets the car apart from the usual crowd of bland hatches. The engine buzzes eagerly into life and I make my way out onto the road. First impressions are of a pleasingly revvy powerplant by diesel standards. It's almost petrol-like in its responsiveness, yet still delivers a broad spectrum of torque. The noise isn't intrusive either – recognisably diesel, but reasonably refined.

However, it's when you get to a corner that the MINI really starts to shine. It has a very sharp turn in, which immediately banishes any ideas of a nose-heavy oil-burning hatchback. The steering is beautifully weighted, perhaps not as communicative as it could be, but still wonderfully precise. The firm suspension limits body-roll while effortlessly soaking up mid-corner bumps and pot-holes. Combine this with excellent traction and a degree of throttle adjustability and the Cooper D becomes a car that genuinely goads you on, yet one that still feels completely planted and firmly on your side.

When you want to play, it really is up there with the best of the warm hatches – not as showy as something like the Fiesta ST, but very nearly as competent. When you just want to get from A to B, it simply blows them away… Its superb tractability, civilised cabin and general refinement would make it a pleasure to drive on long journeys. Whatsmore it does all this while sipping fuel at the rate of around 65mpg and putting out only 118g/km of CO2. It's this all-round ability which really blew me away – it ticks very nearly all the boxes. The only area where it falls short is luggage space, but this is a criticism which could be applied to most small hatches and, let's face it, a student-chic roof rack would only add to the retro Mini appeal.

So, am I a convert? Well, yes and no… I still think they should have called it something like the BMW 0-Series, because, despite its Fisher Price styling, the links to the original Mini remain pretty tenuous. It is, however, a superb small car and an incredible all-rounder. It's also the first time I've driven a sporty diesel that genuinely felt like a driver's car, not just a compromise for economy. If I had to own just one car on a tight budget this would be a serious contender, if only they could badge it as something original!