Wednesday, August 27, 2008


It's about ten months since my first serious car article (for Madabout-Kitcars) and it looks like I'm now going to become a full time automotive journalist.

As of the 29th of September I'm going to be an editorial assistant, covering the Race Tech and Moto Tech high street magazines, plus the Bernoulli aerodynamics journal.

I will be part of a close-knit team of just six permanent employees. As well as plenty of writing, this gives me the chance to try my hand at virtually every other part of the publishing process. I'm warned I'll have to be a Jack of All Trades, but frankly I'm relishing the opportunity!

So, there you have it. I guess I'm now a professional automotive journalist.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Alfa beaten

Magazine road tests reveal too much electronic intervention, lifeless steering and poor driver involvement. The Alfisti sigh and continue to wait for the next truly great Alfa...

I've just read the first couple of reviews of the Alfa Romeo Mito and they seem a bit, well, mixed. After the disappointment surrounding the dynamics of the (standard) Brera it seems that the Italian manufacturer may have faltered again

Alfas remain gorgeous, highly-desirable cars, but how difficult would it be to do away with some of the mod-cons, lose some of the weight and bring back some of the driver involvement?

I can't say I'm in the market for either, but I was looking forward to seeing the Mito knock the Mini Cooper off the top spot and it just doesn't sound like it's going to. Maybe Alfa's hotly rumoured rear wheel drive revolution will sort things out. We can but hope.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The car chase Pt2

Shortly after my last blog the insurance company finally confirmed I needed a new car. While the clarity was welcome, the fact that they’d left it until the day before the courtesy car hire period wasn’t. The hunt resumed…

After the two Alfa 156s I made a vow to be sensible and consider more affordable, practical transport. It was, after all, to be a load-lugger and motorway car to complement my TVR. This lasted around 24 hours.

The day in question started well. I’d made an appointment to visit a company with a selection of Ford Focuses - the leftover stock from an ex Ford dealer who’d sold up. The cars were all very smart, low mileage examples – perhaps a little too smart for my utilitarian requirements, as they were priced accordingly, so I pressed on.

The next car I was due to see was a 306 D-Turbo which, while showing a lot of promise as a design was clearly a knackered example. The dealer explained in reverential tones that it was his teenage daughter’s own car. And I don’t doubt it. It certainly felt like a strapped-for-cash student had owned it.

The next target was Renault Clio Dci, about half an hour’s driver away in St Albans. I headed off, but it wasn’t long before I got distracted.

I stopped at a petrol station on the way and something to the left caught my eye. On the edge of the forecourt was a bright red Prodrive-tweaked Alfa Romeo Brera S. After paying, I moved my hire car to the side and decided to have a nose.

It had taken me this long to realise that there was in fact an Alfa dealership on the other side of the fence. I had a quick look at the Brera - surely the most desirable car you can get (new) for the money in its 'S' trim - and then I wandered into the showroom.

Sadly my budget doesn't currently stretch to a brand new anything, let alone a top of the range Brera. However, they did have a gorgeous looking, very well specced 1.6TS 147 within my budget, so I asked if we could go for a test drive. The salesman sent me indoors to fill in some paperwork whilst he brought the car round to the front.

After about five minutes he returned looking rather sheepish to explain that his two year old, low mileage 147 wouldn't start. I stifled a bit of a snigger at that moment - I know the stereotypes are a little unfortunate, but I also suspect he spends a lot of his time trying to explain this to people and it seemed to be a little too ironic.

It was a final reality-check for me as I carried on to the diesel Clio, which proved to be a somewhat mixed experience. It handled well, went acceptably and promised extremely impressive fuel economy. However, it was just too small inside and the ergonomics left a lot to be desired… even my Westcountry gene pool hasn’t left me as a 5’2 hunch back with size-three feet.

With that final test drive complete and time rapidly running out, at last, I had a clear winner: The Focus. True, the 306 was cheaper, the Puma handled better and the Clio was more economical, but it offered an all-round ability that none could match. It was a spacious hatch back with 40mpg potential that would cost peanuts to insure and still prove a reasonably entertaining drive.

The example I’d seen earlier also had a variety of enticing options, such as air con, sports suspension, a 6 CD multi-changer and heated leather seats that were a huge improvement on the standard items. It was also barely run-in at 37,000 miles with a full service history and the fabled one lady owner.

I managed to negotiate twelve months free road tax and a small discount and arranged to pick it up the following day. Two weeks on, the car has proved faultless. The only minor annoyance is the choice of tyres that the seller had put on the front. They’re an oriental make I’ve never even heard of before and their performance is best described as amusing.

As I approach the second fill-up, the time is nearly here to calculate the first MPG figures and see whether it really was the sensible choice. Needless to say, I’ll post an update.

The Car Chase Pt1

Thanks to stints at Evo and Autocar in quick succession it’s been a while since I last had a chance to blog on my search for a new car. Well, that’s all about to change…

The process that saw me arrive at this ubiquitous junior-repmobile was, predictably, a somewhat tangled one. When I last wrote about it there were a string of contenders besides the Focus, including the Ford Puma, the Ford Fiesta Zetec S, the Citroen Xsara, the Alfa Romeo 156 and its smaller brother the 147.

I came very close to buying a Puma. I scoured the local area and eventually found a good one, got an idea of price and then decided to sleep on it. This decision turned out to be (potentially) fortunate as I got a phone call from the insurance company telling me to hold off purchasing another car the following morning. It turned out the vehicle they’d originally said was a confirmed write off, might not be. I’d have to wait and see.

In the intervening time, something caught my eye. Something red and Italian – an Alfa Romeo 156 2.4 JTDm Sportwagon to be precise. It’s a vehicle that I’ve mentioned before: a front wheel drive diesel estate car that somehow manages to be genuinely desirable.

The first one I had hoped to see appeared to be going at a bargain price. Unfortunately, as is all too often the case, it was found to be, quite literally, to be too good to be true. A friend in the trade had spotted the same car at auction with crash damage a few months before and this blew the dealer’s assertion that it was pristine and 100% original clear out of the water.

Still, my next move was a virtually identical 156 Sportwagon. This car was a relatively well looked after and mechanically sound example owned by a chap on Pistonheads. It drove beautifully, but - cosmetically - it looked every one of its 90,000 miles and rather more than just four years old.

Something was missing too. Inside it just didn’t feel special enough to live up to the mystique. It was nearly twice the price of something like a low mileage Focus or 306, yet it felt pretty much as utilitarian. What’s more, this one wasn’t even red. I reluctantly decided to look elsewhere.