Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Humbug; a winter's tale of public transport

Let me make something clear now, in the first sentence, at the top of the article. I hate snow. It's cold, wet, white, icy, cold, snowy, slippy, and cold. I also hate ice, for much the same reasons. In all honesty I get a bit 'bah, humbug' around this time of year anyway; people anticipating Christmas at the end of November or beginning of December wind me up; it's far too early. So clearly I've been really enjoying myself the last few days; cold, icy, snowy hell that it has been.

It highlighted an interesting problem though, and one which in it's conclusion will have you wondering if this is really a car website. I'm about to advocate the improvement of public transport.

Yesterday, I slept on a friend's sofa - weather conditions were awful, and as I needed to be in university again today anyway to present my radio programme, I stayed where I was. The weather did it's thing, and it was clear that if I didn't make an attempt to return home today I'd probably not get back until Easter. So attempt I did.

Huddersfield to my home in northern Sheffield involves three trains, if the direct route is cancelled - or if for snow reasons you don't fancy risking being stuck in a small village in the back of beyond. So I went via Leeds, Wakefield, and the Meadowhall shopping centre. The finale to this hellish journey (Class 142 Pacers are awful trains at the best of times) was a two mile uphill walk in a foot of the godawful white stuff. Arrived home rather drained and on the chilly side.

My point is this; not only do we need to overhaul our public transport system, but we need to ensure that it functions when weather conditions aren't ideal. During my two mile walk not a single bus passed me, and not one of my trains was on time. I may like my car, but I appreciate public transport - if you can't drive, are prevented from driving by conditions, or can't afford to drive, it's a vital part of the infrastructure. But it needs to be a part of the infrastructure people want to use all year round. Tonight, I'd have killed for a bus, or for a half decent train. But most of the time we couldn't car less because we don't use them. The green mob desperately want us to leave our cars at home, but on the few occasions we have to we see nothing to encourage us to do the same voluntarily. If in 2900 a Class 142 carriage were to be found by some great great great (insert many hundreds of 'greats') grandchild of mine, he or she would instantly assume that in the Noughties being five feet in stature qualified a human to consider himself tall. At a good fifteen inches taller, I can confirm that modern trains have no legroom. Buses are almost as bad, and are noisy and not comfortable.

Now step back forty, fifty, a hundred years. I'm a frequent visitor of the Worth Valley Railway, and the type of train you'll certainly find there is spacious, comfortable, and has tables to put your paper or your pint on. Travel further back and you get leather and velvet upholstered drawing rooms with en-suite private facilities.

I'm not stupid, I do realise that to travel to university in an Edwardian living room would cost me about four times what I currently pay. But we could certainly do with more space on commuter lines (A bar/buffet would be good too). And wouldn't it be great to reinstate the ways of the past for long term travel?

Let's start though, by getting the nations trains and buses running in winter. I'm not the only one to want it.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The XJ, up close and personal.

The new XJ LWB, with Hatfields salesman Michael in the background.

I’ve written a fair amount about the new Jaguar XJ on these pages. So much that if I were paid for what I write I could almost buy a scale model of one. OK, a cheap one maybe.

It’s been on sale for around a year, and yet I see none on the road. A few weeks ago, I grew bored of waiting and motored on across to my local Jaguar dealer, Hatfields of Sheffield. I wasn’t optimistic of my chances even to see it - a chap I knew a few years ago was ignored by the staff for arriving in paint-spattered clothes – still of high quality, but he was given the impression he wasn’t wanted. So he took the money he was going to use to buy a brand-new XKR and bought a Mercedes instead. A fluffy-haired young man in a slightly down-at-heel Peugeot thus wouldn’t go down well...

When in the showroom, a chap called Michael asked me within a minute if he could help me. I made it plain I wasn’t looking to buy, and that I was a writer seeking the chance to nose round a new XJ to confirm his own opinions. “Of course!” he said, showing me to both short and long wheelbase versions in the showroom and spending a good half hour discussing the future of the company with me. He confirmed my suspicions; there are no plans for a Daimler X351 nor a larger car with the Daimler brand at the moment. The 4 cylinder diesel mooted for XF is also, so far as Jaguar’s dealers know, a myth. When the time came for me to leave, he toddled off and returned weighted down with just about every piece of current Jaguar literature he could lay his hands on. Praise, then, must go to Hatfields.

And what of the XJ? Well, the first thing that sprang to mind is that it photographs terribly. In the metal it’s far more coherent – especially in LWB form and in black – than any still image allows you to comprehend. When viewed alongside an XF – as, funnily enough, most XJs in showrooms are – it makes the smaller car look lumpen and vaguely dated. Too much is electronic though – the cars in the showroom had been powered down, meaning access to the glovebox and boot amongst others was not an option. The dashboard is a very pleasant surprise – far from the plasticky appearance I’d been hoping against, it was upholstered in high-quality leather, looking and feeling most contemporary. The wood on the doors works well too, and there’s space for even my legs in the back of the SWB version.

My one remaining static issue is headroom. Maybe it’s that at 6’3”, I’m something of a giant. But the glass roof means the headlining is too low. This can of course be solved by lowering the seat, but this strikes me as a solution to a problem that needn’t exist.

I say static issue because I tried to blag a test drive. This was my one request which was denied, and then I suspect more due to my age than the dealership’s reticence. Sadly, I doubt Jaguar’s insurance covers nineteen year olds who aren’t in a position to buy. A pity, but I’ll have the chance one day to report from behind the wheel also. Sort the roof out, Jaguar, and then on what I currently know I can wholeheartedly recommend it. As for now, I recommend it if you’re under six foot tall. Or being chauffeured.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Continental cruiser.

The new Bentley Continental GT; looks sharper than the last and should be sharper to drive too.

I've just watched the live unveiling of Bentley's new Continental GT. A car that in it's original guise didn't really win me over. Sure, I liked the interior and the Flying Spur is still a car that I could get along with very easily, but there was something about the slightly boss-eyed nose and the Audi TT-esque rear end that didn't endear it to me.

Not so with the new car. At first there are few differences to note, but the more you see it the more you see what's new. In fact, every panel on the car is brand new. It's sharper, more muscular, and more purposeful than it's predecessor. The new, less rounded rear window puts me in mind of the Aston DB9, whereas the remodelled nose is somewhere between the Mulsanne and the old Continental T. The new bootlid - with a prominent bulge first seen on the current Azure - looks less downmarket than the rump of it's predecessor, and the whole thing looks both more upmarket and more aggressive than ever before.

The interior is much of the same - sharper, but essentially like the old car. However, I'm not keen. The interior itself is fair enough, but it has been ruined with the stupid 3 spoke steering wheel from the previous Continental GT Speed. Whilst less repellent than that in the Mulsanne, I can't help but feel the traditional 4 spoke Continental wheel is classier than the idiotically creased thing that nestles in front of any prospective new Conti driver.

It's easier to see the changes when side by side; new car edgier and more like Mulsanne saloon

Expect to see the full range follow suit; GTCs, Speeds, a Supersport or two, and the Flying Spur (The one I'm waiting for). New is a 4.0 V8 option to sit alongside the W12; a cheaper and more carbon efficient Bentley for those who give a damn about the environment. I'm sorry, but if you care about the environment you don't buy a Bentley, end of. The good news, however, is that because the car is lighter, it should both have a lighter effect on your wallet at the pumps and be a bit quicker to boot. Even in basic GT guise, I reckon this will be a 200mph car. Well, the W12 version, anyway. Expect the W12 range to start at about £120000, with the V8 somewhere between £100000 and £110000.

As I mentioned above, the one I'm waiting for is the Flying Spur. I sincerely hope Bentley don't style the new one in much the same way as the old one - which looked a little ungainly from most angles. No, what we want is a sort-of Mulsanne-lite, but with a six light configuration. It's not unfeasible to liken the Mulsanne to the S-series as far as looks are concerned. Right, with that comparison in your head, consider what a similarly updated S2 Mulliner Flying Spur would look like. That's what we want - Bentley, take note. I also hope that Bentley have taken note of the Flying Star shown by Touring at Geneva and displayed on these pages earlier in the year; a Continental GTE would be a fantastic piece of kit.

I look forward to seeing more on this new car; to be properly unveiled at the end of the month at the Paris show. Just please, Bentley, don't foul up the derivatives.

Bentley: Please make the Flying Spur a bit like this.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Insuring a fair approach

I want to talk in this article about a subject close to my heart. As a nineteen year old male living in the formerly industrial North, the fact that car insurance is expensive has become an accepted fact - unwillingly, but it is a cross which has to be borne. Give the size of the quotes I've been getting, it's unsurprising that many insure in their parents' names or don't bother at all.

Seriously, let us look at the facts. I did a quotation the other day on a friend's old Austin Maestro Mayfair 1.3. Not exactly a road-burner, and neither is it a car that many would find an aspirational item nowadays. Yet my insurance quote would have bought you a Daimler Sovereign. Not insured one, fuelled one, or even rented it for a week. Bought, outright. Compare this to the quote I got on a V8 SD1 as a named driver. Still extortionate by the standards of most people, but a thousand quid is stupidly low for anybody's insurance at my age. And what's the fine for not having insurance? £200, 6 points (A ban, but if you're not insured this won't stop you), and a slap on the wrist.

Call me biased, but this does not strike me as a fair system. It punishes the innocent - the safe, sensible, mature-minded drivers - by lumping them in with the idiots as a matter of course and charging accordingly. It's also gender-biased - granted, there are a higher percentage of idiot male drivers than idiot women, but is this really ample justification for doubling the premium for those who lack the ability to give birth? And I'm not kidding - that really is the rough nature of the imbalance.

Now, I'm not calling for the abolition of insurance. To do so would be frankly idiotic. But I do think a fairer system should be created. I've seen and discussed several methods over the last year or two, and I really think that some would be better than the current system.

First, there is an idea proposed by my friend John Orrell, who if he drove would qualify for cheap insurance on account of his age and his post code. This model can be called the 'benefit of the doubt' model. The idea behind it is that we each pay a reduced sum to insure a car - not a stupidly low one, but enough to act as an incentive. Let's say no premium of more than £1000 for young drivers on anything below group ten insurance. This is then reduced with No Claims Bonus every year, as per mature drivers - let's say an annual drop of ten percent for the first year, five thereafter. But if anybody makes a claim for an accident that is the fault of the policyholder, his or her policy should then skyrocket. That which before would have been £1000 would be, say, £2500 or £3000 after the accident, and that would take years to return to a sensible level. This would be an excellent way to punish those who are guilty whilst not unduly taxing the innocent.

Come on, though! Insurance companies want your money! They're not going to give in to that sort of idea without a fight. So here's idea number two, suggested in the Times about a month ago by a correspondent whose name I have sadly forgotten. Rebates. We keep the current system, however, at the end of the insurance period each claim-free driver receives a 50% rebate. That way, the innocent aren't unduly handicapped save for the first year, the guilty are punished, and insurance companies can help themselves to twelve months' interest on the bit they have to give back.

Nobody with a sensible head upon their shoulders can deny that these two ideas make infinitely more sense than the one we have. But I bet neither is adopted, because it would mean insurance companies lost out. But there would be serious money in plan number three. Why can't one insurance company halve the prices of all young driver insurance quotes, full stop. Yes, they'd be stung once in a while by the idiots, but by adopting a 'clean licences and no fault claims' policy they could weed out repeat offenders. And the amount of business they would attract would certainly compensate for the lack of profit caused by lower premiums.

But will anyone be brave enough to take this step? Thought not.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Holding a torch for the victims of car crime.

Image ©
Don't let this happen to your classic.

I've been abusing the old blog of late, I'm afraid. I've been a bit wrapped up in capers, shows, and establishing the From The Captain's Chair website to really write anything for this place. But now I'm back I'm going to write about something really meaningful and deep. The destruction of your pride and joy.

One night last week, I awoke to what sounded like an expensive firework at about half one in the morning. As I was trying to go to sleep, I heard another. Incensed at the idea that some chav's jollies were keeping me from sleep, I hopped out of bed and stormed to the window. About a hundred yards away, to my left, was what seemed like a huge bonfire. Donning my specs, I saw that what it actually was was a bonfire based upon a Ford Transit camper. The other two tyres, for it was tyres exploding which had awakened me from my slumber, followed in the footsteps of their comrades with the accompaniment of a spitting and hissing dashboard. Within minutes, the fire service were on the scene, and despite the Transit's reluctance to calm down, the blaze had been fully extinguished within a quarter of an hour.

There are still scorch marks on the concrete between the council garages the Transit was set ablaze amongst. And captivating though a big fire undoubtedly is, there are still scorch marks burned indelibly upon my brain. For the first time, I had a clear insight into the sense of loss that is felt by enthusiasts whose prides and joys are forcibly removed and destroyed. Recently, my mate Chris Mansfield's very late MK1 Montego base - a rare model and the latest known MK1 to boot - was borrowed without his permission, and turned up cooked to a crisp about a week later. Another friend's Triumph Acclaim, though not burned out, was found upside down thirty miles from his house . There have also been near misses - cars that low-life have tried to steal but been unable to fathom the security on. And if you cast the net wider in the classic car world, worse has happened - witness the rare Humber Sceptre estate at the top of this article.

I've always been able to sympathise with the sense of loss felt when something like this happens - like any other burglary, it hurts. Likewise, I've also felt that it should be your right to break the culprit into as many pieces as your car/front window/garage was in when you found it, that a slap on the wrist isn't a good enough punishment for the lowlife that enjoy removing the privileges that people have worked damn hard for.

But what hadn't quite sunk in before was the extent of the sentimental loss. As I watched the flames curl further around that camper van, I couldn't help but consider the owners. Probably planning to take it to Cornwall or Whitby for a week in August, now deprived of the holiday they would have had. The possessions kept in there, lost forever for maybe ten minutes of jollies by a gang of four with a single shared brain cell. Seeing the flames curl round the wheelarches of this once proud house on wheels, as parts of the fibreglass camper conversion simply fell off, helped me appreciate the pits in the stomachs of people affected in this way - where once nestled love for their pride and joy, and where for no other reason than a childish desire to smash, crash, or burn, there is a gaping void left to be filled

I hope to God it doesn't happen to me. Having seen both the act of arson and it's results, I know I would be heartbroken to hear of the car of another friend of mine going up in flames. My own motor? I'd go to pieces.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Evoquing negative emotion

The new Range Rover Evoque.

Having stumbled across pics of the new Range Rover, I can only really feel two emotions. Disappointment, and disgust. Sure, we all knew it was coming, the Land Rover LRX saw to that, but as someone who hates pseudo4x4s with a passion, it was never going to appeal to me.

It's too small, there's next to no glass, it looks like it's on stilts and full of steroids, and it will be far too pricey. But whilst these criticisms are entirely just, none represents my biggest problem with the Freelander based car. Nor am I most hacked off by the fact that like BMW's Mini, it seems to be a case of style over substance. Nor even is it the stupid name, Evoque, that incenses me most.

No, my problem is that this car is not and will never be a Range Rover. Spen King, the recently departed genius behind the idea, has stated that it was engineered from nothing, made a huge profit with few revisions, and had no rivals at the time. Certain things were done for reasons - the black pillars were cost-effective, the basic style derived from the original mock-up body used to test the chassis, even the castellated bonnet edges were designed to provide mirror mounting points.. The original Rangie was genuis in combining car with Land Rover, and in becoming a truly prestigious item along the way. By the end of RR Classic production in 1995, not only was it still a serious off-road tool but a viable XJ and S-class competitor. The P38A and L322 full-sized Rangies do this just fine, also.

The Sport, a roadgoing version of the Range Stormer, signalled the beginning of the slippery slope. A blinged up sham-RR, based on the Discovery (apt, given that the original Disco was Rangie based), intended more for Sloane Square than the Serengeti. This, I thought at the time, had as much to do with the Range Rover as the Range Rover had to do with cheese. And the Evoque, with it's stupid name and idiotic looks, has taken the idea further. Range Rover, far from being a stand alone flagship of the Land-Rover range, has become a selection of vehicles suited more to the footballer than the farmer. The interior is even to be designed by a team led by the original 'footballer's wife' - Victoria Beckham. A Rangie with a Spice Girl interior. It's sacrilege, to debase one of the most prestigious names on the planet in the way that LR seem to desire.

"The 4x4 was never intended as a status symbol but later incarnations of my design seem to be intended for that purpose," Spen King told a Scottish newspaper in 2004, going on to state that people who drive four-wheel-drives in town are stupid and pompous. That the Range Rover had become little more than a display of wealth, he stated, disgusted him to the extent that at the time of the interview he drove a Mini. What, then, would CSK have made of the Evoque? Call me cynical, but I do not think he would have approved.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Charles Spencer King, 1925-2010

Charles Spencer "Spen" King

It is with much regret that From The Captain's Chair announces the death of one of the most influential men within Rover and later British Leyland; Charles Spencer King. Spen, as he was known, was first apprenticed to Rolls-Royce in 1942, joining the Rover company under his uncles Spencer and Maurice Wilks in 1945, working upon the Rover gas-turbine projects.

A significant figure in the creation of the P6 range, King was effectively the man behind the legendary Range Rover project - a special edition of which bore his initials in 1990. His input into the Maestro and Montego during the early stages of development ensured the car's simplicity. Freely admitting to copying the basic principles of the VW Golf, King eschewed the Hydragas and box-in-sump layout of previous BL mid-range cars for both ease of maintenance and customer familiarity - there was no need for anything more complicated, so he advocated the use of a simplistic design.

As Chairman of BL Technology in 1979 he was responsible for Leyland's ECV projects to investigate efficient and green technoology - some thirty years before the rest of the planet became interested. Many of the features of the Design Award-winning K-series stemmed from research done by BL Technology during his tenure as Chairman. He resigned from BL in 1985 at the age of sixty.

He died last weekend as the result of injuries caused by a cycling accident 2 weeks ago, from which he did not recover. Spen was an influential man, and contributed to many of From The Captain's Chair's favourite designs. He will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

I've been driving in my car.

There have been several debates; on telly, the radio, in the pub, even in the car itself - about what the best driving song on the planet is. I myself have a number of suggestions - though many would argue my music taste is dire. But what really makes a good driving song appeal to us, and can music really change the way we drive?

This, I felt, was a topic worthy of further investigation. But being a man, and biased because I were to be the driver in the experiment, I couldn't really evaluate my own findings - we all are worse behind the wheel than we like to admit, even if we are the world's greatest drivers. As such, finding the flaws in my own driving would have been a near impossible task. So I took a passenger with me.

The passenger I chose was my mother. As somebody who drives in utter silence, and whose nerves since two non-fault accidents have caused her to become a tad... jumpy when being driven, she would be the perfect person to assess the effect of different music upon my driving style. And following a bribe in the form of a picnic in the countryside on a sunny afternoon, I'd convinced her to take part in the experiment.

Not wishing to push things too far either towards lunacy or lethargy, I selected something with a high pace and upbeat rhythm and something smooth and refined as my 'test tracks' - Rio by Duran Duran and Avalon by Roxy Music. The New Wave beat of Duran Duran would be the perfect contrast to the debonair electric Lounge Lizard that is Mr Ferry, and conveniently I carry both a Duran Duran cassette and a Roxy Music cassette in the Peugeot at all times. To start, out came the album I'd been listening to before, and into the Blaupunkt cassette player went the "Rio" album.

"Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand!" One of my favourite New Wave tracks by one of my favourite New Wave groups, ideal music to drive to on a summer day. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and it served as a reminder of just how sweetly the 306 handles. The weather was perfect, the birds were chirruping, and it felt superb. The track ends, the Bryan Ferry compilation album I have is slotted into the stereo, and even I can feel things slowing down a little. There is something about Bryan Ferry's voice that instantly makes you feel like Mr Cool, for whom everything in life has turned out well, who can afford to take things easy - and just relax. Especially the later Roxy stuff, as per the title track of their last album in 1982; the Ferry take upon the New Romantic era was to revisit the days of people like Crosby and Sinatra, a soothing alternative to the more contemporary collections heard elsewhere.

Testing over, we found a charming little spot at the side of a quiet country road to have our little picnic and reflect upon the results of the experiment. The music described by one of Duran Duran's contemporaries as 'bumpy bumpy bump' music seemingly did little for my driving style - whilst it was conceded that I'm not the sort of arrogant prat you find behind the wheel of most Bee-Ems I was told that Le Bon was not Le Plus Bon vocalist for passenger satisfaction. Roxy Music, it seemed, had the same effect upon my helmsmanship as it did on my mind. Everything was so much smoother, more relaxed, and I was told I seemed pretty much to trained chauffeur standards when listening to soothing music.

So what does this teach those who actively try to improve their driving? Simple. For the majority of the time listen to smooth and soothing tracks - if Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music aren't for you, try someone like James Blunt. On the occasions where you're either doing sporting B-road blasts or in areas with higher speed limits, listen to the faster paced stuff - my personal preferences are things like Phil Collins and Duran Duran, but a lot of pop would fit into this category. And if you want to listen to rap music that everyone can feel as you drive by - you're clearly a mentalist. Go away.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The money of colour

Jaguar's X300 - doesn't look so bad in odd colours as you'd think.

Just had a text message through from my old mate Jon Sellars. Regular readers of the blog and website will remember Jon as a chap with a taste for all that's classy about British motoring, and a chap also who'd offered me a go in his borrowed Jaguar X300 XJR if we got an opportunity. Sadly, the key word in that sentence is 'borrowed'. The keys are due to go back tomorrow and I'm not able to get down and see him beforehand. Sadly, this means that I'm not going to get a spin in the ultimate supercharged six cylinder rocketship in the near future.

I tried thinking of things to make the pain of losing an XJR drive go away. The Rover Sterling I've been offered a spin in, for example. Remembering the SD1 VP EFi I recently borrowed. Looking forward to potential future Jags of my own. But none of it really managed to take the twinge of regret away - until Jon's second message told me what the rocketship's replacement was likely to be, sparking an intriguing train of thought.

An XJ8 4.0 Sovereign LWB in Royal Blue. Just as quick a car, but with more of a walnut and leather 'Gentleman's club' feel than the overtly sporting XJR. Very much, I thought, a car that would suit Jon. But his preferred choice of colour was the bit that gave me food for thought.

You see, I'm a fan of what we could call 'obtuse' colour schemes - let's face it, any man who wants a brown Bentley with a tan interior isn't quite right in the head. And whilst I appreciate the subtle class of a Royal Blue Jaguar with cream leather, it's a bit... I don't know, on the acceptable side. You see, there are some less established shades that really work on Jags, but are a bit too Marmite for most people's tastes.

Jon's suggestion of a V8 Sov got me thinking of an Alpine Green car I spotted for sale the other day in that spec. Alpine Green is a slightly musky pale metallic silvery-green colour with a hint of gold, which in the right light really manages to look the part on the leaping cat. I know what you're thinking, it sounds awful - a car dealer associate had an Alpine Green S-Type on his lot for months with little interest. However, something inside me really wants an Alpine Green Sovereign or Daimler, as it looks upmarket, slightly tweedy, and very 'old-money' to my eyes.

Signal Red also works on the X300 shape, somehow. I've seen one or two - OK, only one - Sovereign in Fire Engine red, and I desperately wanted it. I thought that somehow, despite the blatant wrong-ness of the idea, it worked surprisingly well. It especially would with a black interior; which on a Jaguar is like ordering ice cream with your roast beef. So rare are they, however, that I had trouble finding a pic to head this article - a lengthy root through my archive yielded the original ad. Sorry for it's less-than-perfect quality on-screen, the original was barely two by one inches.

I may have a soft spot for dodgy colour schemes, but everyone else would be sticking their fingers down their throats as I wafted past in complete serenity. They'd think me mad to have chosen such an emetic shade for my upmarket British barge. And because several people are of this mindset, the red Jag at the top of the page - and any car in the 'wrong' colour - is worth less than many others. More desirable colour combinations - dark blue or green with a cream interior, say - attract a premium. As a Yorkshireman, I'd never buy a brand new car for depreciation's sake, so the whims of fashion ensure I save money on my purchase by choosing a less widely revered shade.

Perhaps this is the root of my love of brown cars, as well. My wallet is covered in moths and dust, such is the rarity of it's emergence from the black hole I call a pocket. So by choosing the ones no-one else wants I could save a fortune. The only problem is when I tired of my questionably coloured possessions, nobody would want to relieve me of them without a huge discount. But so what - if I like a car, chances are I'll keep it a fair while. And even if I did sell at a loss, the saving I made initially would mean I'd had a better spec car than I could have afforded had I played it safe in the first place.

Vive le difference!

Thursday, 17 June 2010

A mistake for Morgan?

Morgan's EvaGT teaser shot.

Just checked my e-mail inbox, and one's popped in informing me of a new Morgan. The EvaGT is said to be a 4 seat coupe, based on the Aero 8 chassis, and is to be a limited run model only. The company have released a teaser sketch - one of those that barely shows you anything. But what it does show is pure pornography - rather like a coupe version of the unique Wallis Special Austin Seven, built by Wing-Commander Ken Wallis, but swoopier.

If it's based on an Aero 8 it should drive well enough, but I'm concerned about the idea of departing from the true Morgan formula. The last time Morgan did this was with the Plus Four Plus. This was another of my favourite Morgans purely for oddball value, but when it was new it bombed - just twenty eight were made.

The figures look promising though - a 300bhp BMW 3.0 straight six, 0-60 in under 5 seconds and 40mpg. Predicted top speed is in the region of 170mph. It shouldn't be cheap though - if the price tag isn't six figures I will be surprised.

I might be concerned about the idea of a 'modern' Morgan, but I'm even more concerned about their brand plan overall. Sources close to the factory have suggested that due to their size Morgan hope to launch a new car every 2 years or so - hybrids, track cars, electric cars and more. This will undoubtedly offend the purists - I am by no means a Morgan Nazi but I'm stunned it's even being contemplated. The appeal of a Morgan is that they've been round since slightly before the Ark, and are a taste of England As She Used To Be. If the Plus Four Plus of the 1960s was such a flop, then how do Morgan think their traditional clients will react to an electric car or a Westfield-esque track car? And who else would want to buy into the brand - say you have a Morgan and it's a Plus Four being driven by Brian Blessed in a flat cap. What bright young playboy would want to be associated with that?

I like the Morgan range as it is - I'd adore one of those Aeromax Coupes, and I suspect that the EvaGT will be even better as far as I'm concerned - like an old school Bristol for those to whom the Fighter doesn't appeal. But Morgan are taking a huge risk with this change in direction - I have my fingers crossed it'll pay off, but the doubt's still there.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Torino, twinned with Detroit.

Lancia's Delta, soon to be offered with a Chrysler badge.

I understand, from the popular motoring press, that the FIAT/Chrysler merger means the end of Chrysler in Europe. Their models will be rebranded Lancia, and Lancia models branded Chrysler for non-European markets. Strangely, however, the UK market will recieve the Chrysler branded cars, not those bearing the more evocative Lancia nameplate.

I'm not sure that any of this is a wise move, mainly because I'm not convinced that Lancia and Chrysler do good bedfellows make.

I've had a good crawl over a current Delta, and in all honesty the car managed to impress me considerably. Yes, it looks a little bit squirrel-esque when viewed from head on, but the interior is a genuinely pleasant place to sit. Like all Lancias (Especially the Lybra - what a shame that car wasn't available in RHD) it not only looks classy but feels truly upmarket; the plastics are nice to touch, the seats are firm, and it all feels RIGHT.

Now compare this to, say, the interior of a Chrysler Sebring. It's grey, with pretend aluminium and equally plastic wood. There is nothing (admittedly from photos, I've never so much as seen a Sebring to compare the Delta to) to draw one's attention, the plastics look to be of inferior quality, and the outside of the car is to my mind a bit of a mess. How such a thing could ever be branded a Lancia is beyond me, unless some work is put into refining the interior decor big style.

However, it's not all doom and gloom. Renderings of the next generation Chrysler 300C show a far more pleasant interior than any of the current lineup, and a Flaminia GT style grille complete with huge Lancia logo would suit the big C no end - add a bit more chrome, some less brash colour choices (The Thesis was available in a lovely metallic rust colour - quite apt given the rumours that drove the brand from these shores) and some typically Italianite alloy wheels, and the package could work. Only just.

Working the other way round is a move I'm equally unsure about. Nice though the Delta is, with Chrysler badges and attendant grille it borders on the ridiculous. What previously seemed a little odd yet fundamentally pretty looks as a Chrysler to be quite ill-judged. Chrysler do, however, get an improved interior ambience from a tie-in with the Lancia division of FIAT, which is more than my experience suggests the Italian division will recieve. Looking on the bright side for we Europeans, though, the SRT range would make superb Lancia HFs...

My main reason for being dubious, however, is that I have been eagerly awaiting Lancia's return to the UK for the past 2 or 3 years. The worldwide recession put paid to the reintroduction when it was meant to happen, and as such it was postponed. But for the reintroduction of one of motoring's most evocative brands to be made with a whimper, under the name of a somewhat less interesting (to my mind) American marque, borders on the tragic. If such a match must be made, then give us back our UK Lancias along with it. We're asking very nicely.


P.S. From The Captains Chair now has a website - either click the link at the top of this page or visit

Friday, 28 May 2010

The Bangernomics theory

I've been neglecting this place of late. Not deliberately, but I've had rather a lot to do, and I've had to give writing the back seat for a while. So much neglect indeed that the last entry is hideously out of date. I wrote about Oli South's 420SLDi, and how at 190,000 miles it still felt fairly good. For £350, it had done him proud, lasting a year and thirty odd thousand miles.

Since my drive in mid-April, though, the car has started to show it's age. It was taken off the road a month before, in March, for a service and some maintenance. Sadly, more needed doing than was really economical, so he started talking in terms of a replacement towards the end of last month.

Fast-forward to last week. Out of the blue, I got a phone call. "Sam [he said], quick question. Do 400 and 600 wheels have the same PCD?" They don't, and I told him so. However, before anything else was said, poor signal cut me off. I found out the next day he'd just bought a 620SLDi. 150odd thousand miles, still fairly good condition by the look of the pics on eBay. How much? £200.

Experience shows that even with such a high mileage, the L-Series Rover diesel engine is certainly up to higher mileages than that. So what he's done is again buy a car that'll probably last about a year - though he reckons it's a stopgap - for next to nothing. Two years' cars for £550. I know people who've lost several times that in depreciation alone.

Oli's experience got me thinking seriously about this whole Bangernomics business. So seriously, that I armed myself with a virtual £500 and went on a virtual hunt for a decent car. Well, come on. I'm a student. I'm not going to sally forth with a real £500 and look for a real car until I can finance it. To make it even more of a challenge, I'm going to be fussy. For my £500, I want a car I'd genuinely enjoy owning - that means fairly big, comfy, preferably auto - and must last me at least a year.

Big, comfy, and cheap. I could do a lot worse than a 600. And whilst the car I found on Pistonheads failed to tick the 'auto' box, it ticked the 'lairy' box quite well instead. It's a 600ti, basically a 600 with the 820 Vitesse 200bhp lump dropped in. 128000 miles, in White Gold (Plus point from me, but not to everyone's taste), and roadworthy until July. Best bit though, it doesn't look to need anything for the next test. Worth considering.

I've always liked the bigger 800s, and an 827 or Sterling auto would tick the boxes. eBay came up with the goods, a 1994 827SLi automatic with no bids at £350. Very little tax but six months' test left, the practical hatch body, and a low mileage at 91500. Yes.

Something with a premium badge next, I think - whilst I'm a Rover fan to the man on the street they're nothing special. Could I buy the Best of British with my monkey? Sadly not - double the money and I can take my pick of Jags and Daimlers, but the choice in my £500 price bracket was pitiful. No late 80s 5 series BMs worth talking about, and I didn't even dare looking at W124 Mercs. But hey, I found a couple of big Rovers within my budget that could realistically last me some time. Who cares what others think - this Bangernomics lark could be a bit of all right.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Bangernomics in practice.

Oli's mega mile Rover - for next to nothing it's impossible to go wrong.

Trying to navigate whilst speeding along a dual carriageway at something a tad illegal, I noticed too late the street we were aiming for. 'Bugger' was my response, to which my chauffeur braked hard, knocked it into second, and hurled the car round a 90 degree right turn across 2 lanes of traffic, tyres squealing like something from the Professionals. Such was my first experience of R404SPR back in August, from a rather cramped back seat.

I'll begin with an admission. I loathe the idea of a diesel engine. To me, they are clattery, sound like a Transit or a tractor, and tell everyone within sensory range that you're either a Scot or a Yorkshireman when it comes to counting the pennies. I've never heard the term dieselhead used to refer to a car nut, not is there a car satire site called SniffDiesel. So I didn't expect to be greatly impressed by the daily hack of my best mate, Oli South. The car is a Rover 420 SLDi he bought in June last year with 159000 miles for £350 or so, and now has done just shy of 190000 miles. In the time he's owned it it's not exactly been his pride and joy (That's his Maestro VP) - it's been a workhorse; driven daily, used for work, dented, scuffed, and with an interior that would give an OCD sufferer a multiple heart attack. However, I fancied a quick spin, and upon expressing this desire he chucked me the keys.

To begin with, at fairly moderate speeds it seems unnecessary to use the accelerator. The car will set off from a standstill and build to a decent town speed on the clutch alone - making this the first car I've driven that seems entirely impossible to stall unless the driver is being a prat. The seats were still supportive after thirteen years and 190000 miles, the steering light and without any free play that I could detect.

However, it was a tad light for my taste. I wasn't overly impressed with the ergonomics - I'm sure that by spending ages fiddling with the seat I could have got into a position where nothing was a huge stretch, but given that I didn't test the car on the public highway and that the position everything was at suits Oli and his fiancee, I didn't like adjusting the seat too much. My other major criticism was that rear visibility is limited due to the high bootline, narrow rear screen, and thick rear pillars - the light steering also meant that looking backwards whilst reversing, I had no idea in which direction the wheels were pointing until the car was moving.

Yet despite my dislike of diesel, the poor rear visibility, and the overly light steering, I can't honestly say it's a bad car. It was dirt cheap, has been driven the equivalent of three years' mileage unserviced since last June, and does not look or feel like a car that's travelled nearly a hundred and ninety thousand miles. Had I been looking for a car when R404SPR was for sale, I can't say that I'd have ignored it given the abuse it's taken and the stupidly low purchase price. As a daily hack, it's unbeatable.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

A car for the Connoisseur

Rover 75 - a bargain not to be missed

My good friend Jon Sellars offered me a spin, back in November, in his XJR. Like me, he's a BL man with a fondness for Jaguars, and like me, he's young enough to defy the 'old man' image. However, unlike me, he's of sufficient age to be able to insure pretty much what he wants. At the time, the Jag was back at his home and we were in Birmingham at the NEC, but he offered to let me have a spin next time he, the car, and I were in one place. I met up with him at the Pride of Longbridge rally last weekend, which he attended in his Rover 75. Such a car was more in the spirit of PoL than the big cat, he said, before asking if I'd like a go in the Rover whilst it was there.

Not an offer that I, as an admirer of the 75 and British car fan in general, could decline. Jon's 75 is one of the most desirable in the range; a 2.5 V6 Connoisseur SE automatic saloon in royal blue with cream leather. Save the colour combination, the one I'd buy - and I'd not mind the shade he chose if my preferred Primrose wasn't available.

Unlike previous big Rovers, the 75 feels hemmed-in - it's by no means claustrophobic or cramped, but there is no sense of complete and utter space. Instead, the car seems to shrink around you from the moment you shut the door. Survey the dash, and it's more than pleasant - call me old fashioned but walnut, leather, and magnolia dials comfort me in a car. The seats are well shaped and legroom and headroom - even in the back - are more than adequate for a long legged beanpole like myself.

Put the car in 'D' and you hit the only real flaw I managed to find. The plastics on the gear selector didn't feel quite as upmarket as the rest of the car would make you think. I expected nicer, but then I remembered that the car as a whole looks and feels more upmarket than it really is - was the fault with the car or my perception of how it should ? Set off, and the atmosphere is one of utter serenity. It's a soothing and relaxing car to drive - partly, I suspect, due to BMW's desire to avoid in-house competition - with a near silent V6 at town speeds. The suspension is more than capable of dismissing anything so undignified as a bump and twirling the near-vertical steering wheel provides effortless changes of direction. That's not to say the car detaches you from the outside world - it's fairer to say that the 75 cushions it's occupants from any undue discomfort or effort.

I could quite easily live with a 75 - especially given that current prices are the stuff of wild dreams for we Yorkshiremen. The 75 wasn't particularly expensive for it's class when new, and today it represents an even better used car bargain. Even if you're picky and want the best spec, you can find a 75 for very little. I found six 2.5 Connoisseur SE autos for under £1500 with just five minutes on Auto Trader's website. Search around and one can be yours for under a grand - a further five minutes turned up a few low spec cars and high mileage cars starting at about £800. For that sort of money, find me something better.

Rover 800 Revisited

Rover 827Si in Wales; pic by the car's owner Richard Clements.

As regular readers will know, this isn't the first 827 I've reviewed in From The Captain's Chair. I drove a Startins Regency back in October, and liked it a lot. I praised it's light steering, and it's feel of effortlessness. However, at eighteen feet long it was just a smidge too long for me to get a true impression of the car, so when Rich Clements passed me the keys to his 827 Si manual, it would have been rude of me to not try it out. It was also a manual, which made things more interesting - 827 manuals are rare, and having declined an offer of a manual Sterling a few weeks earlier for insurance reasons, I wanted to see what I was missing.

Rich warned me that the clutch wasn't great, thus nominating himself for 'Understatement Of The Year' award. The bite point was at the furthest prod of the pedal - to the bottom of it's travel and then slightly through the floor. But when this was mastered, the car leapt away like a car that leaps away well. Into second and again the Honda V6 was raring to go, begging me to bury my right foot into the carpet. But not in someone else's car. Not on grass. And even disregarding those points, not until I'd more experience of the car in question. Turn-in is sharp, with wonderfully sensitive steering reacting you the slightest flick of the fingertips, and the supportive leather seats hug you - the overwhelming impression the 827 manual gives is of an unfeasibly large sports car. It's not surprising that Rover chose an 827 manual for the Isle of Man TT lap record in a production car - an achievement I have on video and that to the best of my knowledge has remained unbeaten.

What surprised me was how different in feel the car was from the Regency automatic I drove last year. Granted, it's lighter and two and a half feet shorter, but that doesn't account for the difference in power delivery. The automatic was turbine-like and almost stately. The manual, whilst still smooth, felt more like an unfeasibly big sports car than a little limousine.

In summary then, the Rover 827 is quite a car with a manual gearbox. It's certainly a car that should satisfy the keen driver, and doesn't pay for this by being unduly harsh in ride, either. In having to turn down the Sterling I was offered, I know I have missed out on a car I would have adored, that would have served me well and probably economically - on petrol as well as LPG - on my commute. But it wasn't to be, thanks to the insurance tickboxes. When driving Richard's Si I found myself wishing all forms of pestilence upon insurance brokers and all they hold dear, for denying me the ability to put an 827 on my driveway.

Criticisms? I had two. Firstly, that clutch - but I'll forgive it that on the understanding they're not all as bad as that one. Secondly, Rich's choice of in car music - local radio - wasn't to my liking. The car itself was excellent.

Buy one. I will, as and when I can.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

A dream realised

Written for AROnline

The SD1 of motoring journalist Keith Adams

My very first memory, earlier even than family events such as holidays and birthdays, is of my father's old SD1 Vanden Plas. A V8 automatic Series 2 in Moonraker metallic, it imprinted itself firmly upon first my young retinas and later my developing mind. I am sure that this car is responsible for my love not only of British Leyland, but of cars in general. Since these memories, maybe from the age of four, I have longed to drive an SD1 V8. And I didn't think my chance would come until I was at an age when I could insure one.

I tried doing so. On the Skelton 'Cars I talked of Buying' list there is an SD1. A Vanden Plas EFi that was being sold locally by a friend. I was close to enquiring before I got an insurance quotation. Suffice it to say I was quoted miserable. So I thought that losing my SD1 virginity would have to wait - that or I'd have to start with a little engined car. However, I'd reckoned without Keith Adams.

Keith is, as I'm sure readers of the site know, a huge British Leyland fan, who has recently had his V8 Series 1 restored in Poland. He's also a generous and big hearted chap, who knew of my reasons for loving SD1s. I was discussing SD1s with him last year, and he commented "Play your cards right, and you can have a go in mine when it comes back." And so it was that on the 17th of April 2010 I found myself behind the wheel of a V8 Rover, about to realise the ambition of some thirteen and a half years.

The first thing to strike me as I entered was that it's a wide car. A very wide car. My mother had commented that upon passing her test and getting straight into an SD1 2300, it felt like an airliner - such was the feeling of width in the cabin. I mocked her when she first told me, but she wasn't far off the mark - the handbrake was a fair way over to my left, as was the gearstick. I turned the key, and felt a slight shiver down my spine as the big Buick V8 burbled into life. In gear, and off we went.

So what's it like? I'd append 'on the road' but I was in a field. Well, first impressions were favourable. Looking down the creased and sculptured bonnet, which I had long admired from all angles but this, I felt that the SD1 disproved the old adage that one should never meet one's heroes - very much my kind of car. Big, quite lazy, yet with the feeling that had I put my foot down it would have gone like a scalded cat. The steering was assisted to the point of feeling easy, yet retaining plenty of feel - and I also relished my first go with a quartic wheel. There was only really one fly in the ointment - Keith mentioned that there was a screeching fan bearing, which seemed at it's worst when letting in the clutch. Having not driven a manual any great distance since passing my driving test (I'm a convert to the lazy life), there was the constant nagging question in the back of my head - was the noise my lack of competence or the bearing?

Pulling back up beside Keith, I switched off the rumbling V8, and emerged from the Pendelican powerhouse a far happier man. As I shook his hand, I thanked him for helping me realise an almost lifelong dream. Would I have one? As a hobby car, of course I would. Like a shot. But as a daily, I don't think I could. I'd forever be hoping that tomorrow wasn't to be the day that the V8 rumble became somehow ordinary, or the day upon which I stopped feeling childishly thrilled at the thought I had my own SD1. Given the fond memories I associate with them, I'd rather the magic remained.

But don't let that stop you.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The brown-aissance

A Bentley GTC in brown - am I the only person to like it?

Back in October I wrote an article which subsequently appeared on the website of Practical Classics magazine, lamenting the disappearance of brown from the colour charts of most manufacturers. At the time I could think of just Toyota and MCC Smart as examples of companies which produced cars in the hue so reminiscent of Princesses, Maxis and Cortina Mk3s. Brown interiors are even more scarce – even these companies choose to team their brown bodies with conservative cream or grey interiors.

But since then, brown has undergone something of a renaissance. Porsche, Audi, BMW, and Jaguar offer shades of brown in at least one of each brand’s respective model ranges. Peugeot offer brown too, for those with somewhat slimmer wallets. And for those with money to burn, I found a chocolate coloured Bentley GTC for sale yesterday with a tan leather interior to match its walnut dashboard. And a selection of single and duo-tone brown options are available on the Mulsanne, for the most well heeled in society.

And I’m pleased to say that my prediction; that brown would suit these cars amongst others, was correct. We’ve already seen the return of yellow on cars such as the BMW Mini (which can be purchased in brown with a brown pair of stripes), the SEAT range, and on the defunct MG range. MG’s reincarnation brings with it another example of the vivid orange Ford reintroduced with the Focus ST.
We’re stepping away from a world of sober blues, reds, greens and blacks. Showing silver the door. 2010 heralds the birth of a decade in which, I predict, the spectrum sees fit to revisit the roads of the world. Could this partially provide the return of the individuality I crave on the highways?

I think so, but there’s another item from the dustbin of automotive history I’d like to see reborn. The vinyl roof. Alright, the idea of the vinyl roof being made from vinyl is a touch passé. A roof covered in leathercloth was not only a little bit outdated by the 1980s, but if the roof was damaged water could get between the roof and covering – and as leathercloth is waterproof the water became trapped between the two. This is an open invitation for rot. In any case, I can’t see many people today wanting to boot polish the roof of the new car to keep it looking swish.

But a roof which contrasts in appearance from the body is something I should like to see return. Jag have the right idea on the new XJ, in part. Paint a brown, beige, or black (or any colour) ‘vinyl’ roof or D-pillar onto a car – the Jag’s roof is the wrong shape for a contrasting D-pillar but a VW Jetta, say, would look rather good with one. Solid paint on a metallic car body would achieve the suitable differentiation on, say, a black car with a black roof. We needn’t even stick to traditional vinyl roof hues, although it would be advised to choose a colour which doesn’t clash with the interior. Audi did something similar with the last few TT MK1s in 2006; red or silver cars with black roofs. It looked excellent, although contemporary reports felt it spoiled the lines somewhat.

I personally think my Brown Car Appreciation Guild achieved its aim – being responsible for convincing manufacturers we need more brown cars. Next up, the Vinyl Roof Appreciation Guild, perhaps?

Monday, 22 March 2010

Classics; The Next Generation.

Who says the young are apathetic towards classics?

Almost one in five classic car owners feel that a lack of interest from the young is the greatest threat to the classic car movement, according to a 2009 Practical Classics/Footman James poll. That's right. The apathy of youth ranked second only to the fear of draconian 'green' policies banning the use of classic cars save for to travel to the odd show. A greater threat even than worries over parts. Now I'm sorry, but I refuse to accept this - for not one, but two very strong reasons.

Firstly, there is a surprising support for classics amongst the young. I know people with Peerlesses, with MGBs, Austin 1100s, old Land Rovers, you name it - and all these people are under 21. All of what I would call undergraduate or college age. There's a clear answer to this obviously; that I know all these people through old car communities and forums; that we met because of our love for old motors. As such, it's hardly representative of the views of the man on the campus. Not the case. A friend of mine was recently out driving his MGBGT when he came across a young woman driving a Triumph Spitfire. I know a chap with a Sunbeam Stiletto, whose girlfriend owns an Imp. A chap I was at college with had a Bond Equipe 2-litre and a Reliant SS1. And another presenter on the student radio station to which I contribute drives, I found out the other day, an Applejack Green Austin Allegro.

The second point is that the classic car movement is gradually evolving. What makes a car a classic to us? A topic oft-debated down the pub over a pint of best, but I think we can quite easily codify it. My personal definition of a classic car is one which evokes particular memories for the individual. Therefore my fond memories of holidaying in Wales with family in a Rover 827 mean that for me, the car evokes a feeling of nostalgia. If someone feels that with, say, a MK3 Escort (a car I cannot bring myself to desire) then to that person the family Ford is a classic. And if that same person sees a Rover 800 as a soulless barge with no right to classic status, then fine.

Take a look at the people who buy classics now. I know a man in his late fifties, who spent time working for both Triumph and Jaguar in the 1970s. He owns a Daimler Double Six S2 and recently restored a Dolomite Sprint. I know a chap whose first car was a Rover 2000TC - he's bought another P6 thirty years on for the memories. Cars that meant something to the individual at the time will one day be exhibited for the misty eyed to roam amongst at shows.

A mate of mine is selling his late 90s Honda Civic Coupe; a car into which he's put much time, love, and money. He's heartbroken, but he cannot afford to keep it whilst at university. When he's got to where he's going in life, he'll probably buy another as a hobby car and weekend toy. Another friend has a Fiat Punto which he adores, and wants to keep for when he has kids, and they wish to learn to drive. He'll end up keeping it as a second car, mollycoddling it and caring for it almost as one would for a pet, until then. These are the sorts of car we'll find on the show field in, say, 2035.

My point is this; as long as people love their cars and cherish the memories, there will be a classic car community. Yes, the number of us who love cars of the 60s and 70s will decline, but then look how few (relatively) old car fans prefer pre-war motors to those of the 1960s and 1970s. The young don't pose a threat, more that people of my generation represent the future of the hobby.

And regardless about how it may make you feel, it's going to happen.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Ugly duckling a blast from the past

Aston Martin Cygnet.

I want to talk, for what I think is the third time on these pages, about Aston Martin’s Cygnet. It was formally unveiled last week at the Geneva Motor Show, and my comments can now contain rather more than mere opinion or speculation. But there will still be a lot of the former.

Back in July I speculated that it would be put on sale at a price of £20-25,000, suggesting on Octane’s website in December that the sale price would be towards the lower end of this price bracket. No. Aston Martin think they can get away with selling the £10-13k IQ for nearer to £30,000 with an Aston grille and hand-stitched interior. I could have a fully specced MINI Cooper S Mayfair (Yes, another example of BMW’s Mini nomenclature misuse) and £1645 change for that. Or a Jaguar XF.

Yes, that’s right. Aston Martin are charging XF money for a Toyota in drag. That has a 1.3 engine, does 60 in thirteen seconds, and looks like a cross between a dishwasher and a rollerskate. Something doesn’t add up quite properly there, in my view.

Next criticism. It uses the standard Toyota drivetrain. I have always said it would, as in their defence have AM. But is it really right that a supercar manufacturer launch a car with less sporting performance figures than the company’s products of fifty years ago?

But I’m only halfway through this article, so you know there has to be a ‘however’. Well, there isn’t. I’m going to say ‘That said’ instead.

That said, I can see exactly what Aston are doing. They’ve chosen a base car that’s far too small and weedy to bear the Aston badge, but look at that £30,000 as high end Mondeo money rather than base XF money and it starts to slot into place. The Allegro-based Vanden Plas 1500 was a little car with a plush interior and slight cosmetic workover to ape the larger cars VP worked with; in this case Daimlers. Leyland saw fit to charge Dolomite and Princess money for the car, which in modern parlance becomes high end Mondeos and low end 3 Series BMWs. So what Aston have done is launch the car I’ve been bemoaning the loss of; a small luxury car.

They’ve done it in the wrong way, I stand by that. The iQ was the wrong base; if I’d been responsible I’d have chosen to base it on the Prius and given it a Rapide style makeover – assuming Toyota would have allowed it. You see, Aston could then claim a hybrid to it’s range, and the car would have been a suitable size to become a miniature limousine. And £30,000 wouldn’t look quite so steep in comparison with a £20,000 base as it does when the base car is half that. But the basic idea of a little limousine is one which is to be applauded, so the car gets a slightly reserved thumbs-up from me.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

One for the estate?

A Bentley with a difference; Touring's delightful take on the Continental.

This week sees the start of the largest and most prestigious European Motor Show, somewhat strangely held in Geneva - part of Europe's least car-friendly country. There's a lot to see, but there are two cars which really interest me. More on the second to come later. For now though, I'm going to concentrate upon the efforts of a small Italian company called Carrozeria Touring.

The name's familiar? Well, it should be. Touring are a styling house, known for the quietly elegant Sunbeam Venezia, the jaw-dropping Jensen Interceptor, and the shape that launched Aston into the big time; the DB4. They haven't lost their touch, either, if their latest idea is anything to go by.

Someone there must be very like me. I've always had a lot of time for sensible sports cars - things that go and handle but can take the family and the shopping. True GTs, in other words. And the bets of the affordable ones has always been Reliant's Scimitar GT/E - a four seat, comfortable, plush GT car with such a huge estate rear you could use it to go shopping, or to the south of France. And Touring have re-created this brilliant idea of a sports estate, using the most sporting car from my favourite marque as their base.

Bentley estates have never been what you could call common - the only ones I can really think of off the top are the Jankel Val d'Isere and it's Provence sister, both based on the Turbo R. But there's now a third, thanks to Touring. The Bentley Continental GT/E. That name's mine, by the way - I can't read what they've written in ornate script on the plates of the show car.

What they've done is take a GTC - for the stiffer floorpan - and rewored everything aft of the A pillar. And what it looks most like it a smoother and more stylish version of the Scirocco, combined with the aforementioned Reliant. It even has split fold rear seats, for added practicality. Given the lightning performance of the original, I'd not expect anything but an autobahnstormer in the unlikely event I'd get my hands on one of these - certainly 60 should be despatched in around 5 seconds or so, and 180+mph at the top end.

If the interior's unchanged, this car has joined my top ten dream cars. It's pretty, lovely inside, sensible, practical, and best of all, it's British. OK, styled by Italians, but so was the Interceptor. As the Elgar starts to become audible and the Union Flag falls behind me, I can well and truly describe this as potentially the best of British.

But it's half a million quid. Did I not mention that? The estimated price of about $800,000 works out at just over £530,000, which by my standards is stupid money. If memory serves the base car's about £120k, so marketing this at a hundred and fifty would be fair - there's the mods to cover, and the design fees. Touring seem to have realised they've been overambitious with the price - which is why they've announced that the Conti estate will be restricted to just twenty cars, split between standard and Speed models depending upon interest. This means I'll probably never see one.

But you never know. Bentley's boys may think it great - they did after all have a hand in making sure the quality was up to scratch. The VW Group director of engineering certainly likes it, as does RR designer Ian Cameron. And I hope and pray they they make it a factory model.

Sam has since discovered that the car will be called Flying Star - but as he feels this is pretentious he will not be editing the above article to correct this.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The shape of SAABs to come, and Nikolai's new TVR.

The next generation of SAABs could be very interesting...

There's a fair bit of rumour-mongery at the minute. Not that there's anything new in that, but this time it's centred mainly around two brands I've always rather been interested in; SAAB and TVR.

According to Dutch site Autointernationaal, SAAB wants to bring back the spirit of the old 900 with it's next 9-3 range. By this, I mean we're looking at losing the saloon and estate, and possibly looking back to three and five door hatchbacks to complement the cabriolet. SAAB haven't yet confirmed or denied this, but they've just been handed a big cheque by the European Investment Bank which should cover it's development and more besides.

And what for old Trevor's baby? The last I heard of TVR was that the five year old Russian who held the purse strings was planning to close down the Blackpool factory, and re-establish production in Russia. This rumour proved to be half true. It now looks as if Nikolai Smolenski is planning to launch a new car in the near future; to be made in Germany and to use an American V8. Rumours would have us believe that the US V8 is to enable worldwide homologation, as TVR would be looking at the US market amongst others.

But my column is not a news column, it's an opinion column. And a good job, because I'm one of the most opinionated chaps you're likely to meet. So it stands to reason that if I've mentioned these rumours I've got something to say about them. And I have.

I like the rumours about SAAB. It's not two months since I was bemoaning the lack of individuality on the roads, and now it looks like we could see the return of one of my favourite oddball shapes to the roads. A new version of the 900 Classic would be an interesting looking piece of kit, and given SAAB's history of turbocharging it could be made to go rather well. And imagine a 4wd rally version...

The TVR, on the other hand, I'm not so sure about. Alright, the idea of sticking a US lump in a TVR was first coined in the 1960s by Jack Griffith, who 'did a Carroll' Shelby' to the Grantura. And in the UK these cars were sold under the TVR name. But somehow, I can't see a US-friendly German made sports car being a true TVR. I can't see it being a slightly scary, very hairy sportster along the lines of the original Big Healey. This worries me.

We've got Corvette for people who want a sports car with a Yank V8. We've got Porsches for those who want German sportscars. And I can't see a combination of the two working as a TVR. Good luck to the Smolenski boy, but I think I'll wait and see before praising the idea.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Rover Regency Reminisces

Rover 827 Regency - lives up to expectations

Always loved Rover 800s. Indeed, I'm sitting on my hands - after missing out on that Montego last week I have the urge to buy something else as a reflex action - and I've spotted a rather nice Sterling Coupe for £250...

That said, I have as yet only driven one 800. And much as I liked it, living in the middle of a housing estate and on a narrow road it wouldn't really be practical for me to have bought that one.

It was a MK1 827Si. Right engine, I'm not averse to MK1s, but perhaps the wrong spec for my liking - I'm into leather, so it would have to be a Sterling for me. The slight problem was that as I settled into the grey velour seat, I looked in my rear view mirror and saw the rear window some two and a bit feet further back than it would normally be. This was no ordinary 800, it was a Startins Regency limousine. And the owner was in the passenger seat. And I was to take it for a spin on some very narrow roads on a farm.

Let me recount the story as to how I got to be in this position. This was back in October, and my friend Mal Watson had invited me to what would be the last Rover 800 and Maestro/Montego enthusiasts' day out at his barn in Yorkshire, full off spares for anything you can imagine. We're talking a place with a Bond Equipe in 2 pieces amongst it's contents, the MG Maestro Turbo prototype, and an MGBGT shell on a shelf on the far wall. The reason this was to be the last is because Mal has since moved to Somerset after a change in circumstances. At this event, I met Chris Ellis - a chap I've known on various Rover 800 forums, who has just under a million 800s including (at the time) a Regency.

I asked him how it felt to drive compared to a standard 800, and his response was to invite me to have a spin. Well, could I really say no? Setting off, my concern was that I was turning right - immediately to my right was the daily driver of my good friend Richard Moss, a silver LPG-equipped 820Si. Not that I should have worried, for I found the steering of the 800 to be fingertip light, and the car felt no bigger than my daily 306. Indeed, it felt smaller than the Montego 1.6 Mayfair I was to drive the same day. It also felt smaller in that I seemed to be sitting lower, holding a larger steering wheel - this car was made as a tool of pleasure as much as a mode of transport.

To turn, I spotted a driveway some nine feet in width or so, which seemed ideal. And it was, but for the dog stood behind the car. I slid the exquisite gear selector into reverse, half-hoping that the sudden appearance of white lights would make the dog think this large creation was in fact a UFO, and thus run away. This failed. So Chris hopped out, and went to move the dog - which as a result attached itself to him like a limpet for the rest of the day. Backing up was just as easy as going forwards - the Regency may be large but visibility is second to none. As I parked again, I reflected upon the possibility of 800 ownership. He's since parted company with the regency, and had I the space I'd have bought it. But an 18 foot long car isn't practical.

A sixteen foot one, though, is a different matter. Now, where did I put the ad for that £250 Sterling Coupe?

Friday, 5 February 2010

Montego love

The Austin Montego 1.6 Mayfair; delightfully charming.

I nearly bought a Montego the other evening. Sight unseen, a 1988 Vanden Plas 2.0i automatic, in Diamond White over Hurricane Grey. I've known the majority of the car's owners since June 2006, and it only needed a little work to get back on the road. Sadly, it had gone by the time I asked about it, two days after being advertised on the Club site. Not that I had anywhere to store it anyway.

I blame my mate Ray.

Well, if I'm honest, blaming Ray isn't fair. I've had a bit of a thing for Montegos since seeing the car I nearly bought, three years ago, in the hands of another acquaintance. Especially Mayfairs and VPs. So when Ray very kindly offered to let me take his 1.6 Mayfair - in Clove Brown with a Caramel interior for all those in the Brown Car Appreciation Guild - for a quick spin, I wasn't going to refuse.

It's said you make your mind up about a car within the first ten seconds of getting into it. If this is the case, the Montego made a very favourable impression. No, the seats were not leather, but there was wood, it was brown, and let us not forget this car's place in history. The Montego was the last wholly British mainstream production car - the last Austin Rover with no Jap or Jerry input.

I'm a huge fan of automatic gearboxes, and since passing my driving test six months before taking the wheel of the Monty I'd not driven a car with a do-it-yourself 'box. I was thus concerned I'd make a hash of it. Not so. The clutch was forgiving, with a comfortable bite point, the gearbox was smooth, and the car was comfortable enough to make me forget I was in unfamiliar territory. It's spacious too, with ample headroom even for my 6'3" frame. Visibility from the car was second to none, especially out of the back, and I found myself liking it.

What I wasn't prepared for was the steering. Perhaps it's because I'm used to having power assisted steering. Perhaps (though I'd hate to admit it) it's because I'm a limp-wristed fairy with arms like toothpicks - weak, thin, and brittle. But I was unprepared for the initial weight of the steering. It freed up nicely when on the move, however, and I was able to consider more thoroughly my opinion of the car.

One more criticism. I'm a creature of habit, and if I am driving a manual car I like reverse to be underneath fifth in the gate. Whilst I'm happy to put up with a reverse gear next to first instead, I did not like the idea of pushing the lever down, rather than pulling up or leaving as is, to engage it. I admit, it took a minute or two of befuddlement before I gave in and just read the gearknob to discover the art of selecting reverse. But in a car with a proper 'box this would not prove a problem.

It's even comfortable and quiet on the motorway - I've been in noisier and less refined Jaguars. Whilst I admit there was a draught coming from somewhere round the passenger door frame, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt and assume a faulty seal is the cause, not a poor design. I had trouble believing the car was 23 years old, built to a 25 year old design.

Would I buy an Austin Montego? If you look to the top of this article you'll see I nearly did. One with leather to satisfy my love of the upmarket, with PAS to rescue my weedy little arms, and an automatic gearbox to satisfy my lazy side. And if a Yorkshireman is willing to put his money where his mouth is, you can rest assured he's suitably impressed.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The 306, six months on.

Peugeot's 306. A cracking buy.

Six months ago, I wrote a piece telling everybody in the market for a cheap car to buy a Peugeot 306. At this point, I'd run one for perhaps two months. Do I still feel the same, six months down the line? There's only one way to tell, and that's to look at it objectively.

I found a matching car - indeed, the one pictured above - with twice the mileage but three years newer a plate. That said, it was a late registration in that colour and as a MK1. That car is £950. Given that we paid £1500 in 2003, and I see no reason to sell for less that the car pictured, it has cost under a hundred pounds a year in depreciation. That's as close to depreciation-free motoring as what was then an eight year old car can offer.

It's quick enough, being powered by a 1.8 four of some 103bhp. The automatic gearbox provides a decent kickdown - not so much in terms of outright urge but I suspect this is more down to the car's age and the fact that short journeys do not endear themselves to peak engine condition. I always feel as though I'm in control too - drive a 306 and you understand instantly why the GTi6 was THE hot hatch to beat in the 90s.

I needn't repeat words I wrote six months ago, and which are freely available on this blog if you're interested. Suffice it to say the car is economical, spacious, airy, and scrubs up incredibly well for a 15 year old family hack. The radio is again excellent, with either a column stalk or buttons within reach which can be used to adjust the sound without taking your eyes from the road.

Another advantage to an automatic gearbox I could not foresee is it's usefulness in injury. In August I managed to damage the ligaments of my left ankle rather badly. My limp was rather pronounced despite the fact I tried concealing it from family members and friends, yet I was still able to drive in complete and utter comfort.

I mentioned the unique build quality of the French - and really, it's not as bad as I made it out. Yes, one piece of trim is held on with Blu-Tack. Yes, one piece until recently resided in the glovebox. But said piece, following some nifty modifications with a penknife and a file, went where it should have been from the factory. A bit of tape to secure the fix lest it break again did the job, and the car is now as close to concours (but filthy - I never wash cars in cold weather) as it can be. I'm still looking for a replacement steering wheel, incidentally - if anyone has a good beige four spoke wheel for a 306, get in touch.

If anything, my praise for Peugeot's peppy people's car is higher than ever. I really do understand the car's appeal, and for the ridiculously low sums they command now, as a Bangernomics advocate I heartily recommend you buy onewhilst there are still some decent ones left.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The best small car in the world

The best small car in the world. Buy one.

With the exception of the first few lessons in that God-awful Yaris, I learned to drive in a 2007 Ford Fiesta 1.25 Style. It taught me a lot. And I'm happy to have had such a highly regarded car as my first long-term steed, for it gave me a chance to make my mind up properly. And my decision is this. Ford's Fiesta is the best small car in the world. Anybody who wants a small car at Fiesta money and does not buy a Fiesta frankly needs his (or, as a city car, more likely her) head examining.

Grasp the door handle of a 2007 Ford Fiesta Style and, whilst it is black scratchy plastic, at least it feels solid and chunky. Get into the comfortable but oh so plebeian cloth seat, and the comfortably sized steering wheel falls neatly to hand once adjusted to suit one's driving position. All the controls were within reach and placed where you would intuitively look, and the cabin had a quality feel. Nice and sensible dash too, for a modern small car.

So, start the engine. The 1242cc four thrums into life eagerly, you snick the stubby gear lever into a well-placed first gear, and off we go. Where we are very pleasantly surprised. On paper, the 1.25 Fiesta is slower than evolution (Of Darwin's type, not Mitsubishi's) yet on the road it feels nippy, smooth, and quick. If anything, too quick - this is a car which encourages spirited driving, and I found myself over the speed limit more than was perhaps wise for a man on a provisional licence. The gearbox was smooth, with a pleasant change action (A Ford strength, as testified by letters of compliment by a Mr F. Flintstone) and a sensitive yet not overly delicate clutch. Turn-in was sharp, and it put a smile on your face. This was a small car in which excellent progress could be made.

With space for even my six foot three frame and ample room to wear the headpiece of the Coldstream Guards in the front, it really should have been no surprise to find that, excepting a somewhat awkward entry and exit procedure through the gap twixt front door and front seat, the back seat was more than ample for someone of proper proportions. Two of his rugby-playing mates could even have joined him on the back seat without causing much consternation - well, where space was concerned anyway. Not that I had cause to look, but I should imagine the boot was more than capable of taking unfeasibly sized boxes of rubbish to the tip, or of taking the shopping home from Sainsburys. Whilst I'm considering practical matters, it should drink less than an abstemious vicar.

Given the above eulogy, it's only fair I should draw attention to this car's weak spots. It's far too wide; my right elbow does not need six inches of space and a thick door to seperate it from the world outside. Lose an acceptable amount of this and we still can chop six inches from the car's width - in cities narrower cars are an advantage. I also think that anybody planning on motorway work would be better served by a 1.4 or even 1.6 Fiesta. You see, the 1.25 engine is fine round town, but it is far happier in top to cruise at 60 than 70. I found myself speeding up and coasting back down unintentionally on the motorway, like the asthmatic kid in PE lessons who didn't understand the concept of pacing himself at cross country. The easiest way to average 70 was for me to drive at 80 - the car's efforts to relax me resulted in a fair compromise.

But two flies is what is otherwise the most pleasant ointment in it's class are not enough to dissuade me from recommending the Fiesta. If there's a better small car, send me one with a full tank and I'll make an informed decision.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Toyota's town toddler; as good as it's painted?

Toyota's Yaris; not that nice, really.

The first car I ever drove with an internal combustion engine, gearbox, and more than one seat was a Toyota Yaris D4-D. To all those who own and love Yarises, I'm very sorry, I may as well admit this here in the first paragraph. I hated the thing.

The rest of the motoring press seem pretty unanimous in their appraisal of the small Toyota; fun, neat handling, easy to drive, and refined. I'll grant it one out of four. For a car running on the fuel of Satan and tractors, it was very refined. From inside, I wouldn't have guessed it were a tractor at first. Fun? No. Neat handling? No. Easy to drive? No.

I'll launch my first attack upon the gearbox. No, the gearknob. Utterly horrid elephant's-arse grey plastic, as uninspiring as the gearbox was bad. I vividly remember having three goes to get it into first gear, having hit third and, bizarrely, neutral, before getting the right gear. This was not my fault - it was often easier at junctions to aim for second and throw it back from there. The one I drove at least had a forgiving clutch - although a friend of the owner told me months later that the clutch in it was well past it's best anyway!

Second attack. The dashboard. Oh God. As a Maestro and Montego fan, not to mention the Audi quattro, it would be unfair of me to attack the car for having a digital dashboard. But I'm going to. The damn thing was set in a pod, in the middle of the dash, where despite Toyota's claims it took more effort to see than it would behind the wheel. Add to this the fact it acted as a strobe light set in and amongst the varying grey plastics of the dash, and you begin to understand just how emetic the interior of the Yaris was. At least, the bits I remember. Most of it was too forgettable.

I'll be fair to it again here, after all, it's only fair. It did have light steering, which made it an easy car to park. However, it could have been light without seemingly completely devoid of feel. I found it to be greatly over-assisted, and frankly not a tool for the keen driver.

So I've lambasted it for it's forgettable interior, awful plastics, emetic dashboard, and reticent gearbox. Was there anything else? Oh yes. Ugly as sin. But I'll forgive it that, it's not meant to be pretty. The one I tried was also a diesel - as much as I despise the idea of driving round in a tractor, I shan't deny that diesels work well in the sort of cars I like; big automatics. Their torque characteristics make such cars feel effortless, whilst returning significantly better fuel consumption than the big V8 I'd personally buy anyway. But a diesel city car? That takes stinginess to a whole new level. Add to this that the engine displaces just 1.3 litres - and as such any torque gains are lost by the corpuscular capacity of the powerplant - and the logic of a diesel engine is seen to be highly questionable.

I'm sure it's a very practical car, I'm sure it holds it's value, I'm sure young single carefree hipsters and grannies love it alike. But I wouldn't buy one. I'd have a Fiesta instead.

Friday, 22 January 2010

This used to be the future.

Sinclair's C5; ahead of it's time.

I got to considering my motoring career thus far today. And it struck me; whilst I've alluded to most cars I've driven in past blogs, I've never actually written a proper road test. During the course of my life so far, I've driven some 6 different models, and I think it would be a fair and reasonable aim for me to chronicle them chronologically, over the next few days. So, here goes.

The first car I drove, some years ago, wasn't really a car as such. It's fairer to describe the Sinclair C5 as a vision of the future that didn't pay off. Sir Clive Sinclair had dreamed of a personal transport solution since he was a small boy; an electric vehicle to be used by one and all. His vision was not necessarily for an eco-vehicle, yet as a lightweight electric and pedal powered trike it was just that, a decade and a half ahead of it's time. As legislation dating from 1983 dictated that anybody over the age of fourteen was able to drive one with no licence, insurance, tax or safety gear, I did just that.

As I mentioned, I was only about fourteen when I drove the C5. I hadn't yet reached the lofty heights I now gaze down from. Yet, for a chap of normal size, the Sinclair seemed perfectly comfortable - the seat was well shaped and comfortable, the handlebars fell naturally to hand, and whilst not snug it didn't feel excessively big. Time, I thought, to release the brake and set off.

Ride comfort wasn't brilliant actually, but was better than I'd expected. It steered well, and was capable of what seemed like silly speeds. Silly given that with just one wheel governing the direction of travel, I turned in slightly quickly and nearly tipped the C5 - borrowed from a man watching on, ashen of face - onto it's side. I then decided the car/trike/toy wasn't as safe as it could have been.

There was another flaw. I drove this one on private land, with no significant traffic. Had I been on a busy main road, with juggernauts aplenty, and even cars bigger than, say, Fiestas, I would have felt very exposed and unsafe. I also hate to imagine how dead I'd be in a head on collision even with such a beast as the cat-killer, or Reliant Robin, to give it it's proper title.

In summary, then, the C5 is damn good fun as a plaything away from the roads. It might even be fun to source three or four and race them round a car park one evening with your mates. But as a mode of transport I cannot take the C5 seriously. It's too flawed to be a viable proposition. Dead prophetic, though. If you'd told me in 1985 that in twenty five years electric cars would be a big thing, even in hybrid form, I'd not have believed you. This is in part due to the fact that I would have been minus six years old, but mainly because the C5 seemed so laughable, the idea couldn't be taken seriously. How wrong we were...

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Jesus Wept.

The gauche face of MINI - the new Countryman

I've just seen pictures of the new MINI Countryman. Not the estate car you would expect given the long line of Austins to have borne the name, no. BMW decided that Clubman, the name BL used for the square fronted Mini, was more apt for that model. No, the Countryman is a lifestyle SUV, for God's sake.

Quite aside from the fact that Moke would clearly be a much more apt name, I've several problems with this excuse for a motor car. I've never been a fan of the BMW attempts at Minis. The original Mini was an innovative car, designed to combat the idea of bubblecars by creating a tiny car for four plus luggage. It popularised front wheel drive and transverse engines as a combination, used the technically great Hydrolastic suspension system created by Dr Alex Moulton, and was given an inoffensive body which was dictated by function more than form. The modern cars seem little more than the complete antithesis of this.

I've scratched my head and thought for, ooh, five minutes, and I cannot find anything new or innovative on the BMW cars. They use conventional suspension systems. The front drive/transverse engine layout is popular, indeed, the most common means of powering any car of the MINI's size. The car itself is a cool two feet longer than Issi's original, and that's before we consider the SUV abomination I mentioned in my first sentence. And yet, despite this extra length, the car is actually LESS spacious than a Mini from fifty one years ago.

BMW think that Mini is about styling. Maybe MINI is. But BMC's baby was one in which form followed function. The BMW range, from which I can name three trim levels, three engines, numerous special editions and modification companies, and now four bodystyles since it's launch just nine years ago. This isn't Mini. It's a mess. Alec Issigonis would be spinning transversely in his grave if he knew.

I understand the cars are deservedly praised by other sections of the motoring media, and I'm perfectly open to the suggestion that they are good cars. My problem is the shameless use of the Mini shape and nameplate to sell front drive Bee-Ems. I'm aware the project started with Rover in the 90s, but whilst Rover's designers (Namely Oliver Le Grice with the Spiritual concept) wanted a compact economy car which captured the ESSENCE of Mini, BMW's men including the infamous Chris Bangle wanted the STYLE of Mini. The Germans won this war. And therein lies the problem. Scrap the styling cues and the MINI brand and I reckon I could learn to like the cars. But not as they are.

But for the sake of a balanced article, I'll leave my personal prejudice about the brand there. Next prejudice. I cannot stand Chelsea tractors, especially pretend ones like this and the Toyota Rav4. It's tall, so the handling's affected. It's hideous - even the Porsche Cayenne is an oil painting in comparison. And I'd like to see how it performs in the Kalahari desert. No, at best it's a tall hatchback. I know we could have done with a five door MINI, but did it have to be so blindingly stupid, ugly, and unappealing? A five door pillarless car of normal height - a five door Mini - would have sufficed.

Five hundred and fifty words in, and I'm going to step free from the bonds of prejudice completely. I've covered the exterior, and I can be no fairer than I have been. Drivetrain? Same as a normal MINI but with optional four wheel drive. Interior? Fussier and, if I'm honest, even more hideous to behold than that body. Loadspace? Bound to be good, but what's wrong with the Clubman beside the name?

I honestly can not see who would be mad enough to buy the Mini Countryman. It's pointless, vulgar, and really rather gauche. I defy anyone to tell me differently.