Road Test: Toyota Estima Lucida Charme Pleasure Wagon

Yes! The annual Shitefest has happened again, and I can bring you a whole ream of fresh crap car road tests. I’ll start with the one that has the longest name. The Toyota Estima Lucida Charme Pleasure Wagon – equipped with the Joyful Canopy no less.

Lucida

Japanese-spec Pleasure Wagon actually pleases

In the UK, you’ll recognise this as a Previa people carrier, though this Japanese import is slightly narrower and shorter, with different front and rear styling treatments. You still get an engine mounted beneath the front seats, a sliding door on the nearside only and seating for seven – or eight depending on spec.

Mechanically, the main differences from a Previa are that instead of a 2.4-litre petrol, there’s a 2.2-litre turbo diesel, allied to an automatic transmission in this case, with four-wheel drive. It’s not an engine with a great reputation – have a quick hunt on Ebay or Gumtree and you’ll find plenty for sale with blown head gaskets or even cracked cylinder heads. But is it any good to drive?

The answer is, surprisingly, yes! The high driving position and column gearchange immediately put me in mind of the Mitsubishi Delica. But, this is no off-roader. It’s ultimately too low. It’s bloody quick off the mark though, feeling far more sprightly than the Delica. That’s quite impressive given that it only has 101bhp and sure, the 0-60mph time of 14.5 seconds is not actually that brisk. It feels quick enough though, even if you leave the overdrive engaged – unusual for an auto but much fancied by Japanese manufacturers at this time.

See? I didn't make it up

See? I didn’t make it up

The ride is comfortable, but the steering is a little vague, and it all feels a bit wobbly if you try pushing on a bit. Take things easier and smooth your steering inputs, and you can drive briskly enough. Turn sharply though, and there’s a threat of sea-sickness from your rear passengers. I feel the Delica behaves more neatly, which is odd given how tall they look!

The ‘joyful canopy’ means a lot of glazing up top, with a huge sunroof to the rear. It all helps make it feel very airy inside and the driving position is very comfortable. It feels like a car you could drive for many hours. Overall, I clambered out of this car feeling much warmer towards it than when I had clambered in.

Whether they make a decent long-term motor, I can’t really say, though I will point out that while the Rover K-Series also has a reputation for head gasket failure, circumstances are certainly not improved by complete neglect. Just because it’s a Toyota doesn’t mean that you can get away with neglecting coolant changes and/or levels. I certainly wouldn’t rule one out.

Patience is a virtue. I lack.

I’m not doing very well with my lack of 2CV action. I must concede, spending a weekend at the 2CVGB National in Ripon, North Yorkshire didn’t exactly help! Nor did being at the Prescott Hillclimb for La Vie en Bleu the weekend before. Two weekends on the trot with a healthy dose of whirry twin-pot action.

Engine turned off, for the last time in how long?

Is there hope for my slumbering snail?

There is hope for Elly, but finances dictate that her knight in shining armour (new panels perhaps) isn’t going to arrive tomorrow. Or the day after that. Or the week or month after. Getting her back on the road has become a long-term strategy – one dictated partly by our outright hatred of debt. We just don’t do it – which people trying to sell us PPI deals don’t seem to understand.

But of course, this waiting is not particularly easy to do! Especially when we’ve had a good splash of sunshine lately. Cue yet more self-indulgent, #firstworldproblems whining. Sorry. It is difficult though, honest! Especially as there’s a real danger that any savings I can get together might get blown on something else. Like the clutch and sphere replacement that the XM needs. Or a new laptop that can actually handle video processing. Or a shabby Dyane…

I did actually put Elly up for sale last weekend, reasoning that it’d probably be better for her if she found a new owner. This led to an entirely expected backlash from concerned friends. Sure, from a financial point of view, Elly’s salvation makes little sense. But perhaps I was wrong to try and rule sentimentality out as a reason to keep her and wait a bit.

You see, sentimentality is part of what keeps the classic car world going. Restoring a car can rarely be done for profit. You do it because you buy into that particular car. You sacrifice other items and purchases to keep the vehicle you’ve grown to like on the road. If people started looking at classic cars as nothing more than items of investment or as disposable tat, things would be very sad indeed. At the top end of the market, perhaps the former is already in place. Depressing.

No, we do it because we love the emotional thrill of driving older vehicles. Yes, they’re demanding sometimes. Yes, they’re not always particularly brisk and sometimes rather uncomfortable. But on the right road, in the right conditions, the partnership you have with a vehicle can be a truly magical thing indeed.

I think I’d better stop there before I disappear up my own backside. Thanks for reading, and check out this video of me driving another 2CV. One with a big surprise.

Cactus proves a turn-off

Oh, the signs were so good. I love Citroens. I love adventurous styling. I positively adore three-cylinder engines. I’m definitely not averse to the pleasures of the turbocharger.

Yet when I got to test drive a Citroen C4 Cactus 1.2 Puretech Flair at the weekend, my over-riding emotion was that of disappointment. Yet again, Citroen had let me down.

Bold looks ruined by dreadful suspension

Bold looks ruined by dreadful suspension

You see, there is plenty to like. The external styling is bold, and the interior is very pleasant indeed. Yes, lots of plastic, but it is well styled and nicely textured. But as soon as I started to drive the Cactus, it all went horribly wrong.

For a start off, the steering is horribly light, and has a numbness to it which is quite staggering, even by modern standards. Then there’s the suspension. I think they forgot to add any. A Citroen should have a peachy ride. What had gone so wrong?

Sad to say but I’m sure the target market won’t care. Some people so blind to fashion that all that matters is the wrapper. That means that large alloy wheels will be specified, even though they’re hugely detrimental to ride comfort (the same is true of the Tesla Model S by the way – ignore the 21″ wheel option!). It also means that on-track road manners seem to matter more than every day comfort. The Cactus is certainly not alone in having these considerable downsides. MINI, I’m looking at you.

On top of this, the fabulously thrummy three-pot engine is so muted, that it doesn’t seem to have much fun left in it at all. Punchy, it certainly is – despite only 1.2-litres, 110bhp will whisk you to 60mph in just 9 seconds – but while the acceleration is good, it is somehow devoid of pleasure. Even though the back of the car squats noticeably under power. How does it do that yet remain so uncompliant over poor surfaces? To add to the misery, the seat bolsters are the hardest found in any car since the Peugeot 205 GTi, where they were seemingly hewn from granite.

Frankly, it’s all a bit frustrating. Do people not value comfort anymore? It’s not like it’s impossible to make a modern car ride and handle well – The Citroen C5 can manage it, even on coil springs. The Nissan LEAF is another outstandingly comfortable family hatchback.

Across a mildly rutted field, the Cactus was horrific. By comparison, a 1950s Citroen Bijou over the same field was as smooth as if it was on unruffled asphalt. Is this meant to be progress?

The French used to be the masters of ride AND handling. I really don’t understand how things have gone so wrong. Given the horrendous state of many of Britain’s roads, you would have thought a compliant suspension would be top of everyone’s lists when forking out over £17,000 on a car. Apparently not.

What on earth is that?! Driving a DRK

I get to drive a lot of cars, but this one was a true surprise. Especially as it is Renault-powered and I was at a Citroen event. What is it? It’s a DRK – a three-wheel component car which uses a Renault 4 (or in this case 6) drivetrain and front suspension.

That means that it looks (at a very quick glance) a bit like a Morgan 3-wheeler, but is in fact front-wheel drive. This one belongs to a nice chap called Dan Fletcher, who is well-known for liking his cars a bit different. And colourful. It must be said, despite its tiny dimensions, this is not a car you’ll miss in a hurry.

This is a DRK, and it's lots of fun!

This is a DRK, and it’s lots of fun!

DRK built cars in Cheshire, but not very many of them. 59 were produced between 1986 and 1998. Buyers got a very nicely finished kit car, but had to source their own mechanicals. Hopelessly rotten Renaults proved the perfect donors.

Clambering aboard is the first challenge. There’s a hot exhaust pipe to contend with and you have to slide one leg in, drop your backside onto the seat, then shuffle across so you can pull your other leg in. Once behind the wheel, the driving position is low and fairly comfortable – I found the throttle pedal was a bit too close for perfect points to be awarded.

Note upside-down Renault 6 gearlever. Very nicely finished inside.

Note upside-down Renault 6 gearlever. Very nicely finished inside.

The gear lever droops out of the dashboard like a Citroen Traction Avant, simply being the standard Renault 6 lever, but turned upside down. That means that the H pattern is reversed – first is forward and twisted towards the steering column. The handbrake is to the right, with a Dyane indicator switch squeezed between the wheel and the edge of the dashboard. There are other switches. I never did find out what they did.

To drive, there’s very little clue that there is only one wheel at the rear. It’s only when you hit potholes that you expected to straddle that you get a clue. The steering is deliciously direct with tons of feel, and you can watch the mudguards bob around with the wheels. You can even watch the driveshafts rotate. You certainly feel very exposed, even with the unusual rear canopy.

The engine, 1108cc in this case, pulls very strongly from low revs, but has a wonderful exhaust note as you keep your foot down. It isn’t ludicrously quick, but it is satisfyingly brisk. It doesn’t leave you really craving anymore, because being so exposed means you really do feel the rush of the breeze as you hurtle along. 60mph feels much faster than it does in say a Jaguar XJ6.

DRK rear

Canopy not standard fitment. Eye-catching! Needs a rear-gunner.

Turning into bends at speed, it feels remarkably stable. Having the engine so far back (behind the gearbox) must help here. There’s not too much weight slung out front and what weight there is sits very close to the front axle line.

The ride is perhaps a little bouncy, though I was testing the car over particularly undulating roads. The front suspension retains the torsion bars of the 6, which are probably used to a little more weight. The rear wheel uses a DRK radius arm with a telescopic damper/coil unit.

It has to be said though, it all feels very solid. That’s because these cars were very well built when new. You really did get a complete car bar the engine and gearbox. A steel chassis is mated with beautiful, aluminium panels, so it certainly isn’t a plastic-bodied lash-up.

I reached the end of my drive feeling like I’d want to spend a lot more time with this car. It’s about as practical as a paper cagoule, but if it’s fun your after, here’s a relatively unknown vehicle that can really deliver.

Brakes: How wasteful!

One of the biggest problems with electric vehicles is that they really highlight how wasteful ICE (internal combustion engine) cars are. When it comes to generating pointless heat, road vehicles are wonderful!

If you're going to have the future, have it fully electric

ICE versus Electric. Which one generates most waste when it comes to heat?

Take braking for instance. We just take it for granted that we press a pedal and the world gets less blurry. What we’re actually doing is taking the momentum we’ve built up with an inefficient petrol/diesel engine and converting it into heat. If you don’t believe me, drive down a long, steep hill with your foot constantly on the brake. Then have a good feel of your wheels. Careful – they may be VERY hot.

Then there’s the engine itself, which mostly turns fuel into heat. Great in the winter, because it keeps us cosy, but also great at warming the air around the vehicle. It’s what radiators are for.

Electric vehicles on the other hand tend to have regenerative brakes. The electric motor becomes a generator, recharging the batteries and providing a strong engine-braking feel. In a car such as the Nissan LEAF, pressing the brake pedal gently strengthens this effect, causing the vehicle to slow. Only if you really stamp on the pedal do the actual brakes kick in – which some folk reckon can cause the brakes to simply seize up through lack of use!

Sure, you don’t get something for nothing, and you’ll not put back into the battery what you took out accelerating, but it really does help extend range – as I recall all too well from our Nissan e-NV200 Roadtrip. To be honest, that regen was the difference between us making it home, and running out of juice in the middle of nowhere.

Eeek! It stopped predicting mileage at this point

Very low on juice in the Nissan e-NV200 Combi. Regenerative braking enabled us to get home.

But this still leaves me driving in ICE vehicles, realising how wasteful it is to brake. I haven’t driven an EV since November, but this feeling is very hard to shake!

It’s exactly the same feeling I get driving in traffic. Now this really is where the EV shines. Come to a stop, and all is silent and serene. While you’re not moving, or even when pottering along gently, you’re using barely any energy at all, while an ICE vehicle would still be turning its engine over at around 1000 times a minute.

As you may have noticed then, I’m still rather fired up about EVs. They’re still tantalisingly out of reach, though there are some great deals out there. I’ve seen brand new LEAFs offered on contract hire for as little as £150 a month for two years including battery hire. £3600 to hire a quite revolutionary vehicle for 24 months. That still doesn’t fit my meagre budget, but it must surely be tempting for a lot of people, especially if the household has a second car that can be used for mega-mile trips.

Anyway, here’s another chance to see my review of the Nissan e-NV200.

Road tax: Testing the system

I managed to get myself in a wonderfully stupid situation in March. I found myself owning three cars. I found myself owning three cars that all needed road (or rather vehicle) tax at the same time. I had just purchased the Perodua Nippa for a start. That required taxing because now, when you buy a car, the new owner needs to tax it straight away.

Road Tax

Cor. Remember those funny discs we used to have?

Unfortunately for me, six months previously, I had purchased the XM. Which as the new owner, I had to tax straight away. As I could only afford six months of tax at the time, it explains why I had a second vehicle needing tax again. The 2CV was pure circumstance, though a frustrating one. I knew the MOT ran out on 15 April, but the tax ran out in March. I needed the 2CV to be on the road for an event I was organising (in which my 2CV led a convoy of other 2CVs) over the Easter weekend, so I would have to tax that too. Fortunately, the new Direct Debit system would save me from instant bankruptcy! Firstly, the Perodua needed taxing immediately, so I went online and it was all very easy to sort out. I didn’t actually tax it at the point of purchase because I couldn’t be bothered. I drove home, then went online and did it – this is only safe to do if the car you are purchasing had tax at the time of sale. If the car was SORN, you’ll be driving home in a car that shouts I’M SORN! to any passing Police car or ANPR camera. My new Perodua would simply show as taxed, as the V5 had not yet reached the DVLA to indicate a change of driver. I’m sure an arsey copper could argue that having a green slip of V5 proved that the transfer had taken place, but I’m a risky type and drove home over 100 miles without due concern. I digress. The Perodua was taxed, and two weeks later, the first payment was taken. I was glad of the breathing space, as that was after pay day! I know it was only £9.72, but every little counts. I waited a bit longer to tax the Citroens, as they already had tax in the eyes of the system. You get a couple of days grace into the following month anyway, but I went online to carry out further transactions before things got naughty. There was a further delay before £20.12 (XM) and £12.77 (2CV) left my account. In fact, it was sufficient delay for the MOT to have run out on the day the first payment went through! You do seem to get a couple of weeks delay before the Direct Debit takes your money. Naturally, by then, I had declared the 2CV SORN as there’s no point keeping a car taxed if it has no MOT. Come the end of the month, direct debits for the Nippa and XM were deducted, but there were no further payments for the 2CV. Perfect! My two weeks of motoring had cost me £12.77 and, unlike with the previous tax disc system, I had not have to apply for six months, then request a refund of five months once the MOT lapsed. In effect, I just paid for the single month I needed. For sure, it would be better if you could just pay for the actual days used (I ‘lost’ two weeks due to the MOT running out) but you know what? I’m not going to complain. Sure, there are still flaws to this system – the double-payment as buyer and seller tax a car in the same month for instance – but credit where credit is due, this new system does actually appear to work. I shall not mourn the tax disc. I removed them as soon as I could. The DVLA just might have made a step in the right direction though, so I hereby doff my hat. Thanks.

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NOTE: There is an additional 5% charge for paying by monthly direct debit. This is the same premium as choosing to pay for six months at a time. You can also choose to pay by annual direct debit.

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!