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.

Monday, 18 January 2010

The public transport debate.

Even the best public transport types can't compete with a private method.

My train didn't work this morning. I arrived at my local station to catch the 7.42 to Huddersfield for university. I was there ten minutes early, so bought a ticket, sloped off for a copy of the Telegraph, and sat in the shelter on the platform to try and find news items for today's radio broadcast. Two minutes before the train was due, it was announced that not only was it three minutes late, but that it would terminate in Barnsley. Upon it's arrival I questioned the conductor as to further arrangements, but no information was forthcoming. To his credit, our flummoxed friend phoned his boss and elicited that a coach service would transport us to our intended destination.

This, I thought, would be the perfect tale with which to regale the one or two readers I have, and the ideal example to demonstrate my utter loathing of a public transport system. You see, I remain convinced that public transport, noble aim as it is, is utterly futile. Those with the wherewithal to choose will undoubtedly choose the car because it's private. It's your own little safe haven, in which dubious music can be played, you can lose yourself in your own thoughts, and you can argue with the radio without seeming like some sort of lunatic. The opportunity to condemn public transport, I thought, was not to be missed.

So in Barnsley, I hopped off the train and into a very plush yellow coach, with a pleasant chap behind the wheel and a smooth ride. Yes, it took twice the time to get to Huddersfield, yes, the driver's satnav did as all satnavs will inevitably do and directed the coach down a farm track, and yes, we encountered several sets of roadworks. But the facts are as follows. The coach gave me a nicer view of West Yorkshire. The coach was quieter, so I could hear Chris Evans without turning my radio right up. The coach had a smoother ride, so I could have written a book if I were so inclined. The coach was designed to accommodate people of proper dimensions - at a long legged 6'3" I need a shoehorn to wedge myself into Northern Rail's finest. And the coach offered me a more sedate and relaxing start to my day.

Now, at first I thought I'd managed to trample all over my anti-public transport campaign, dragging down only the image of what is admittedly my favourite mode of public transport; the train. But then I remembered that a coach isn't strictly public transport. It's a glorified bus, sure, but it has to be booked in advance, it must be paid for in a more handsome manner than your local ticket office will try and charge, and nobody even thinks of questioning your right to be there (witness ticket collectors on trains). No, the coach is essentially a chauffeur driven bus. Which makes it private transport. This puts my argument back on the rails, unlike this morning's train.

I enjoyed today's journey more because it was essentially a private way to get from point a to point b. And even though it was a private bus, it highlighted one fact. If people are to be encouraged towards public transport, it must remain cheaper than any private alternative yet must be of at least the same standard; appointments, comfort, noise levels, none must suffer. When this happens, I'll be willing to give public transport a chance.

But it won't happen, will it?

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Similitude on the streets? No thanks.

SAAB's new 9-5; not to be.

It would seem, sadly, that the closure of SAAB is a done deed. Despite hopeful rumours of a collaboration including Bernie Ecclestone, insiders state that the SAAB 9-5 line is already being dismantled, to be shipped to Buick's China plant by the end of the week. It's sad, as I've got quite a soft spot for SAABs - they've always been individual, rather pleasant to look at, and, so I understand, the choice of the enthusiast.

It seems even more of a shame when we consider the car they were poised to launch, the new 9-5. Here is a car which is pretty, slightly retro - look at a 900 saloon and you'll see what I mean - and likely to be rather good. Yet because GM consider the company economically unviable, we are to be denied this streak of eccentricism amongst the corporate car-parks crammed with 5-Series, A6, and E-Class Mercedes.

Now for something completely different, although trust me, I'm going somewhere with it. Scrappage. Those of you who know me will know that whilst I'm no advocate of the idea of destroying perfectly usable cars, I reckon the scrappage scheme deals with the problem of galvanised cars quite well. Let me explain. Before cars were galvanised, terminal rot sorted the wheat from the chaff. In these days of rust-free Rover 75s and blister-proof Bee-Ems, there has become a glut of perfectly serviceable old tat, and scrappage cuts this down.

The problem is that it removes the wrong examples. Granny's mint Rover 45 that's been cleaned twice a week and used once a week since new is more likely to be traded in than the Mondeo bought for £500 with a million miles on the clock. Why? Because those who have kept their cars well are in a better financial position, by and large, than those who drive beat-up old bangers. They can well afford the money needed to get into a Ford Ka or Perodua Myvi, and save both £2000 and the hassle of finding a buyer for their old car.

There's another issue. There is no maximum cut off age. Government figures indicate that over 150 tax exempt cars have been crushed, with a further 800+ crushed Cortinas and Cavaliers et al dating from before 1984. I know of a Rover P6 V8, a Triumph Mayflower, and an SD1 which have gone to meet their maker. I also know of a Bond Equipe and a Riley RM granted last minute stays of execution by offers from buyers.

Now I'm going to make my point. I've been speaking to my friend Keith about the demise of SAAB and he made the interesting observation that individuality on the roads is shortly to be a thing of the past, predicting Subaru as the next casualty of the recession. I reckon the same argument can be applied to the scrappage scheme. Yes, the current scheme is due to end on the 28th of February, but I would bet my last penny that during my lifetime there will be an enforced scrappage scheme for any car over the age of ten years. If we want to save any examples of older cars, they must be preserved in museums. Couple this to the loss of companies such as SAAB and the future of motoring is looking pretty bleak.

I envisage a day, in the grand scheme of things not too far into the future, in which we are all driving Identikit blobs with a wheel at each corner. When every car feels the same to drive, is the same to look at, is equally roomy, quick, and economical, when the passion has left motoring. God in heaven, it'll be dull. But it need not be. Those of you in the market for a new car, take advantage of scrappage if you must. But buy something different. After a 3-Series, buy a Subaru Legacy. A Focus? Certainly sir, the new Impreza is perfect for you. 5-Series? Try a Caddy CTS. And keep the roads a varied place.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Motoring recommendations from the fairer sex.

I was speaking to my friend Craig the other day. Nothing odd in that, as we speak at least three or four times a week. What was different was that he raised the issue of women and cars. No, don't. Don't think I'm going to start wittering on about women who can't park and who crash whilst putting their lipstick on. I'm not.

Craig told me of an Escort XR3i he once bought. He traded in his much-loved Capri 2.0S for this; a decision he instantly regretted. And why did he do this? Because his other half at the time liked XR3s and fluttered her eyelids at him. He wanted an MG Montego Turbo, but she who held his affection said no. And so he bought the Escort.

It was not, so he told both my good friend Clive and myself, the only time that he had let a woman choose his car for him. Something, I said, I'd never do. If I'm driving, I said, the car should be of my choosing and to my satisfaction. He chuckled, muttering something about the innocence of youth. So I thought I'd give the 'asking a woman about cars' thing a go. Not having a lady friend of my own to be influenced by, I turned to my friend Ella - an ever exasperating yet eternally lovable person I share classes with at university.

Her recommendations were as follows, on the basis that both are pretty. Volkswagen Beetle cabrio. SEAT Arosa. Both in yellow. Oh dear.

Let us first consider the Volkswagen. Even in black or silver, this car is little more than a handbag on wheels. I suppose in it's way it's the modern equivalent of a Morris Minor convertible, so I'll approach it from that angle. The Radio 2 presenter and ginger-haired Ferraristi Chris Evans once stated that a bad man would never drive a Minor, thus making any man with one attractive to women. Sorry, Chris. The reason that women liked you in a Minor is because they thought you'd be more interested in their boyfriends. And the same goes for the Beetle. For people who wear hair product and carry man-bags, it's little more than a cosmetic accessory. No thanks.

The SEAT's a different proposal. An unpretentious small car, cheaper and more attractive than the VW Lupo it really is (Or rather, the Lupo is an Arosa with a gloopy nose). I understand it drives well, I like the interior, and they seem to go reasonably enough. If I wanted a cheap little car, then I'd not mind it.

But I hate little cars. At 6'3" I need space to stretch out, and if I do so in an Arosa it suddenly becomes a three seater instead of four. For me, the 306 I currently drive is small enough, and it also has a big enough engine to cope with a proper gearbox. A 1.4 and auto combination in an Arosa would be slower than a glacier in reverse, and given the choice I prefer slushboxes to keep-fit ones.

Yellow, I find it harder to argue against. I've made no secret of my adoration of Primrose coloured Rover 75s, and an Inca Yellow Triumph Stag would be just peachy. So yellow gets a thumbs-up.

But it's the only bit that does. Let this be a lesson. Men of the world unite, choose your own steeds in the face of potential male oppression. Those of you willing to put up with the management's choices of conveyance are unworthy of your sex, and want castrating.

Sam is currently facing the repercussions of his final paragraph, demonstrating that chaps who wish to stay in one piece just can't win either way.