SUVs – I don’t think I get it

I’ve spent the past week tooling around in an MG GS and before that, I took a Nissan Qashqai on a Tour of the North. Just before that, I sold my own Toyota RAV4. These three vehicles have combined to make me wonder what the point of an SUV is.

Only one of those vehicles had four-wheel drive – the RAV4 – though the Qashqai can be specified with all-wheel power, as can the MG in markets other than the UK. Here’s the thing though – buyers seem to be quite happy to buy SUVs with only two-wheel drive, so what’s the appeal?

The MG GS is very, er, SUV-shaped

Extra height, but is it actually a benefit?

I will say, I do like an upright driving position, with the feet considerably lower than the buttocks. I guess years of 2CV ownership have seen me grow rather accustomed to this. I’ve never been a huge fan of low, low seating positions. I may still be in my 30s, but I really can’t be doing with getting in and out of something that’s low to the ground.

But you don’t need an enormous vehicle to get such a position. The Nippa has a decent stab at it, as did my Daewoo Matiz from many moons ago.

Sure, neither offers the height of an SUV, but what does that extra height actually deliver in the way of benefit? With SUVs becoming ever more popular, it certainly doesn’t necessarily gain you that commanding view over other traffic that you might desire. Your view will simply be blocked by another SUV. It doesn’t get you a nice, low loading lip for the boot either, so you’d better build up your muscles for loading in the weekly shop.

One of the most successful British-built cars - the Nissan Qashqai.

You can’t stray far from the beaten track in a two-wheel drive SUV

It will give you less stability. No, you won’t wobble over the first time you go around a bend, but in a collision, an SUV may be more likely to take a tumble than a regular hatchback. It’s simple physics once you start raising a vehicle’s centre of gravity.

You aren’t necessarily safer either. These cars do a marvellous job of making you feel safer – all chunky styling that looks like it should repel other cars like water meeting the impenetrable barrier of a duck’s back. But, they don’t necessarily protect you any better in a collision than a regular car. In some ways (ah, stability again), they may be worse.

Then there’s the running costs. I was impressed with the 50+mpg of the Qashqai, but that’s pretty dreary these days for a family hatchback. Citroen was delivering such figures in the 1980s in a car with pretty much the same level of space, and a far better ride (though nowhere near the same interior refinement to be fair). The MG seems to be doing a terrifying 31mpg, which can be bettered by my 20-year old Honda with the aerodynamics of a fridge-freezer. I do not see the expected progress here.

It can go greenlaning, but it's not very good.

A pioneering SUV, and one that, despite four-wheel drive, just isn’t equipped for the rough stuff.

You can’t shove an SUV through the air as efficiently as a conventional hatchback. That chunkiness and raised ground clearance do not help here. Nor does the greater weight they have, though some weight has been saved by not bothering with the four-wheel drive system that you’d expect such a vehicle to have. You can even specify a Land Rover Discovery Sport with front-wheel drive only. I just find this laughable. It’s like buying a rain hat that isn’t waterproof. Sure, it might look nice and stylish, but when conditions turn, you’re going to be left looking foolish.

That came so close to happening to me this very weekend. Travelling back from Sussex in the MG, we encountered freshly falling snow. Grip was reduced by a very large amount, but thankfully we managed to get through. However, I can say with certainty that it wouldn’t have taken very much more snow for us to really start struggling. The fat tyres needed to keep an SUV from skidding off the road are absolutely no help in snow at all. Nor is not actually having four-wheel drive (before you query it, four-wheel drive does not make you invincible in the snow, but it can help you get moving).

All three SUVs seemed hampered by their suspension too. With the need to control a high centre of gravity, there’s not as much give as you might hope for. They’re all rather firm in the springing department.

So, they cost more to buy, cost more to run and actually do a worse job of ‘being a car’ than a more conventional hatchback or estate. I shall continue to be bamboozled by the rise of the SUV.

Use your handbrake!

If you keep your foot on the brake pedal while in traffic, then you’re seriously irritating. Don’t do it!

Brake off!

Brake off!

Seriously, I see a LOT of this, and the prevalence of super-bright LED lamps just makes an annoying problem even worse. It’s seriously dazzling, which is bad news for night vision.

I really don’t know what the problem is. I mean, even my ropey old vehicles have decent handbrakes. It’s a fairly important MOT requirement. That includes the automatics that come and go on my fleet – the S-MX has a fantastic handbrake (drum rear brakes help), so I always use it.

Some modern cars will even automatically apply the parking brake (horrible, problematic electronic things. Awful). I’ve often heard the whirr of the brake being applied by the car, yet the driver has kept their foot on the parking brake nonetheless, blinding me in the process. Cheers!

There’s one exception here, which I’ve talked about before. If you’re the last vehicle in a queue, then it’s much safer to keep that foot on the middle pedal, even if you’ve applied the handbrake. But you can move your foot once someone has stopped behind you. Don’t dazzle them!

It seems everyone has forgotten their driving test, where such blatant disregard of the handbrake is very much frowned upon.

By the way, the same thing applies to fog lamps. Too many people either don’t use them at all, or stick them on, and then LEAVE them on. WRONG! The fog guard lamp is to warn people you’re there. If there’s a car behind you following at a safe distance, then you do not need to use your fog lamp. Similarly, even if it’s quite foggy, if you’re stuck in traffic with a car inches from your rear bumper, then you don’t need the fog lamp. Keep an eye on your mirrors, because the only time you really need a fog lamp (unless it’s SERIOUSLY foggy, which is rare) is when you cannot see another vehicle behind you. In short, FOG OFF! Mostly.

As for front fog lamps, they also should only be used when conditions dictate. They’re not posing lamps. Not all cars have dazzling fog lamps, but many do – Renault Scenic Mk1 especially. Just don’t bother. Frankly, it annoys me that some cars won’t let you use the rear fog lamp without having the fronts on. I currently don’t own a car with front fog lamps. I like this.

Rant over. Thank you.

Citroën destroys brand loyalty

Brand loyalty is a strange thing. I consider myself a Citroen enthusiast, but its products have changed a great deal over the years depending on who was calling the shots. André Citroën himself never got to see the Traction Avant do so well, and never got a whiff of the 2CV and DS (launched during Michelin’s custodianship). Some of my favourite Citroens came out of the Peugeot years, and were better because of it – BX and XM in particular.

Spot of the holiday? Perhaps. Certainly joyous.

Very much a Citroën, whatever marketing numpties think.

But show me a Saxo and I’ll turn my nose up at it. Wave a Xsara in my direction and I will not get excited. Hand me the keys to any of Citroën’s current line up, and I’d probably just give them back – ironically apart from the e-Mehari, which isn’t actually a Citroën at all.

My loyalty to the brand has been diluted by Peugeot’s with chevrons, and by Citroën’s frankly callous regard for its own heritage. For years, the conservatoire was impossible to visit. A hard working team kept some incredible machines in storage, and Citroën will, rather begrudgingly, let you poke around the place today. For now. If you apply for a visit through a club. And only on certain days.

Citroën has also been one of the worst for supporting older models. They cannot wait for the period to expire in which they must make parts available for their old cars. Even before then, they’ll ramp the prices up to quite ridiculous levels, so demand falls away.

But circumstances have taken a far darker turn of late, with the spinning off of the DS ‘brand’ from within Citroën. This triumph of marketing over substance has seen Citroën now airbrush one of its most iconic designs from its history files. You can see it right here. A lovely list of Citroëns from the ages, but the DS (and, oddly, the SM) are nowhere to be seen.

Citroen SM

Apparently the SM isn’t a #CitroenIcon either. Insanity.

How utterly ridiculous. The DS was one of the most incredible cars of the 20th Century, but because some marketing bod who was born decades later had a blue sky moment, it apparently isn’t a Citroën anymore. Frankly, I’m starting to wish that Peugeot had just killed off the Citroën brand rather than subject it to this. Hydropneumatic suspension has already been killed off, and now history is being altered to make it easier to sell the hideous DS range of cars.

PSA, the group that owns Citroën, really doesn’t seem to get it. It has no understanding that heritage sells. No, not like that. It isn’t something you just dig out once in a while to try and get a sale. Heritage is something manufacturers need to invest in. BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche understand this, and Jaguar Land Rover is fast following suit.

None of these companies are attempting to erase cars from their history. Citroën overlooking the DS is like Jaguar overlooking the E-Type, or Land Rover pretending the Range Rover didn’t happen, BMW ignoring the M3 and Porsche denying it had anything to do with the original 911.

It’s the final straw as far as I’m concerned. The Citroën of today is not worthy of my attention. Instead, I will forever enjoy it’s actual heritage. The one that has the DS firmly at its centre – a car which was very much about substance, not empty promises from a design agency.

Self-driving cars – GO AWAY.

Self-driving cars really are the answer to a question that doesn’t need answering. What a rubbish idea!

Think about it. There’s apparently this dream to be transported from one place to another in a box, without you having to go to the trouble of driving said box yourself. Hardly a new idea – trains and buses have been offering this magnificent service for decades. They even have the added bonus that you don’t have to worry about parking or garaging the things, and there’s no need to worry about servicing or MOTs. You just clamber aboard and end up where you want to go. Sort of.

If the future looks like this then we're screwed. GO AWAY!

If the future looks like this then we’re screwed. GO AWAY!

Yet people cling to their cars like heroin addicts to a favourite spoon, even though from what I’ve seen, car ownership in cities can be a hateful, hateful experience. Frankly, even I would rather use public transport. When I go to London, I do.

Perhaps these are the sort of people who welcome the idea of self-driving cars. People who really can’t be doing with the tiresome business of having to move a steering wheel and operate some pedals.

What worries me most is the mixture of self-driving and entirely proper human-driving traffic. This article highlights the concerns. On the face of it, how great it is that robots were not to blame for self-driving accidents. On the other, it’s the unpredictability of these robot cars that is often at fault. If confused, the cars will just stop. Not always appreciated by following traffic and while sure, you should always expect the unexpected when you’re behind the wheel, the truth is that we do anticipate and hedge our bets in a way computers don’t. When you mix the two styles, the recipe is not always comfortable.

I’ve experienced this myself in Volkswagen’s clever e-Golf. It has Adaptive Cruise Control where radar is used to match the e-Golf’s speed to the car in front. This also allows it to detect if an accident is likely and even to brake to avoid a collision.

e-Golf

e-Golf. Prone to bouts of panicky strop due to computers.

Problem 1. I was following a car turning left. The car indicated left and slowed down as expected. Yet the e-Golf panicked and slammed the brakes on really quite hard because it couldn’t anticipate that the car would move out of the way. Annoying. Especially for the car behind me. It looked like I wasn’t paying attention.

Problem 2. I was overtaking a car. Further ahead, a car was turning right and was in the appropriate filter lane. I could see that I would complete my manoeuvre safely within the confines of the road markings, and with plenty of space between all cars. The e-Golf saw the stopped car and panicked and actually applied the brakes even though my foot was on the throttle! I had to stamp down on the throttle to override it, but it interrupted my overtake and caused some digestive discomfort to the driver. And perhaps some swearing.

You see, we may crash an awful lot, but us humans really are quite good at driving. The decisions we make, and how quickly we make them, are very difficult to replicate. How would you programme a computer to see Problem 2 and deal with it safely? How can you programme it to quickly consider so many different factors?

The other problem is that I live in rural Wales. The roads here often lack road markings and/or clear boundaries. Sometimes, it’s hard to judge if two vehicles can pass. Yet, human brains seem pretty adept at making these judgement calls. You also have to adapt your driving style to suit weather conditions and the amount of mud pulled onto the road by tractors and the like. I can’t see self-driving cars getting on very well at all here.

So, they’re better off in cities perhaps, where pedestrian accidents should be a thing of the past – as self-driving cars are always on the look-out and don’t get distracted by girls in short skirts, topless young men or i-pods. But, really, cars should have no place in cities at all. Public transport does a far better job of moving a lot of people.

I therefore can’t help thinking that self-driving cars only exist because tech companies want to show off how clever they are. They are a stupid idea that plenty of us do not want at all. If they really are the future, then I’m bloody glad to say I’m of a generation where we were able to drive our cars and have fun with them. I am not ready to let the computers take over.

Ranty Yan: New Top Gear presenters

So, it seems the news has slipped out that the new Top Gear team is likely to be Chris Evans, Sabine Schmitz and Chris Harris, with a dose of David Coulthard. This is good news isn’t it?

Yet, it has sent the press into a frenzy. The Telegraph in particular has included the words ‘virtually unknown’ in the title, as if this is some crazy, lunatic idea. It seems that The Telegraph has forgotten that Top Gear was relaunched in 2002 with two virtually unknown presenters. No-one outside the obscure Men and Motors channel had heard of Richard Hammond back then, or Jason Dawe for that matter. Remember him? James May wasn’t even on the horizon back then.

James May. The only one I like.

James May. The only one I like.

It gets worse. According to The Sun, and no, I’m not going to link to that dreadful rag, a Top Gear insider appeared to pan the line up as virtually unknown, and wasn’t kind about Coulthard either.

It must be said, I feel very sorry for those working on this third generation of Top Gear. The chances of having a fabulous show from the off are low, yet they will get panned and vilified by all-comers if the ratings are even slightly less than Clarkson’s era. They won’t recall the damp squib that was the first series of ‘new’ Top Gear in 2002 – you know, the series that you DON’T see repeated every five minutes on Dave. The one that seems to have been buried.

Even know, any mention of Top Gear on social media gets people ranting about Chris Evans, the wrongness of sacking that complete oaf Clarkson and how they won’t watch the new programme ‘in protest.’ Oh piss off. It’s utterly ridiculous to pan something you haven’t even seen. I look forward to watching the new format in May 2016 and I will then make up my mind.

Put your hand up if you love David Cameron!

Put your hand up if you love David Cameron!

I really do wish them the best, because Clarkson’s Top Gear had become totally meaningless. It was devoid of fun for those of us who are passionate about ALL cars. I feel I can make a prediction about how the new Amazon show will look, because frankly, the TG-trio seemed almost entirely out of ideas when they still worked for the BBC and the only common thread was stupidity and abuse of cheap, old cars. Given that I’ve already seen a picture of the trio with Reliant Robins, I can probably draw a conclusion already.

Anyway, that’s my rant. Don’t pan things of which you have no experience at all. That’s the sort of short-sighted stupidity that became regular Top Gear fodder. Instead, let’s stop building the Evans era up to be a disaster. Let’s see what he can do. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of his, but he has passion and enthusiasm and I’m sure that’ll come across in the new programme. I’m cautiously curious.

Ranty Yan: Disappearing Trim Levels

I can’t make head nor tail of modern trim levels on cars. They usually involve some marketing guff that creates some meaningless name such as Eronomy or DreamSpiritEcstacyWaft which could be bottom of the range, a sporty little number or the most luxurious version you can get. One thing’s for sure, they’ll all look exactly the same.

Not like the good old days. Remember when a Fiesta could be had as a Popular or a Ghia? One was painfully lacking any sort of kit, while the other was plush and crammed with velour and a five-speed gearbox. Here’s a pic to show how easy it is to spot a sporty Fiesta against the complete poverty model – or perhaps austerity is a topical phrase to use.

Fiestas compared. Very obviously different.

How different can you get? Notice that the black XR2 has driving lamps, a bodykit, a sunroof and pepperpot alloy wheels. The Popular doesn’t even get a rear wiper. Or wheel trims. Or a passenger door mirror. It is very obviously the bottom of the range.

Here’s another comparison. First up, the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 SRi.

Sporty Cavalier goodness.

Undeniably sporty. Again, alloy wheels help give the game away, but there is a subtle chin spoiler and sill trims, while spotlights, headlamp wipers and side graphics ensure everyone in the sales manager car park knows that this is a premium product.

This is a Vauxhall Insignia SRi.

Sporty my arse.

This is a normal Insignia.

Yawn.

Ok, so it looks like front fog lamps still make a difference, but the SRi doesn’t really look sporty does it? The Design is what I think is bottom of the range – it’s one of those stupid non-name names. They should call it the Deluxe, or Fleet. There should actually be a difference!

Of course, it’s always harder to sell a bottom of the range car if it screams Austerity in the same way as a Ford Fiesta Popular, or a Vauxhall Astra Merit. Buyers don’t really want a car that shouts how much of a skinflint they are apparently. Or if they do, they just buy second-hand instead. But could they not make a bit more effort? Should a Vauxhall SRi not at least have a bit of red trim or lairy, Recaro seats? I know they have the sporty VXR models for those really desperate to try and look cool whilst catering for the family – a bit like putting alloys on your pushchair – but the SRi was always about having that sporty look without necessarily having that much grunt. It was a bit more trouser, but not the full blown latex shorts. At the very least, it was about looking different. Something manufacturers seem more and more scared of doing. Come on folks. Swallow a brave pill and give us back some actual variety.

Technology takes away all of the fun

My Land Rover Discovery 200Tdi perfectly summed up how the 1980s/1990s was a peak time for the motor car. They had become very good at many things, but weren’t burdened by over-complexity. How different the current Discovery is! Packed with computers, with an engine that’s barely accessible for some jobs with the body still fitted to the chassis. Dare I say it, but the fun of off-roading has gone too.

Land Rover Discovery any good off road

Low tech is more fun. Computers are not required.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the current Discovery isn’t any good off road – far from it. It’s amazing what it can drag its heavy, shiny body through with barely any driver input. And there’s the crux of the problem. Where’s the fun if the vehicle is doing all of the work for you?

I absolutely loved testing my Discovery in off-road conditions. The long-travel suspension and lockable centre differential certainly helped when things got really difficult, but there was never any doubt that you still needed driver skill to cope with obstacles. I had to choose my line very carefully, and control the throttle input with hairline precision to avoid wheelspin and a loss of traction. I had to anticipate the terrain and take into account many variables, ensuring I was in the right gear at the right time. All challenging but great fun. I don’t really want a car where all I do is steer and let the computers sort it all out. I might as well play at driving on a computer game.

Mind you, it must be said that some off-roaders don’t seem to have much faith in their own skills. They bolt ever more kit to their 4x4s until they look like something out of Mad Max, then get annoyed when they get stuck. Especially if someone in say, a completely bog standard Land Rover Discovery (or even a Ford Maverick) gets through a section with no bother at all.

If all that gear is so necessary, why is that you can still see people having lots of fun in a near-standard Series One Land Rover at trials events?

No, you can keep your computers, snorkels, huge tyres and suspension lifts. When it comes to off-roading, I find you can have just as much fun in something older, simple and bog-standard – and stand a chance of fixing it if something breaks!