If I dwelled too much upon it, it might be depressing to consider how little influence the common motoring journalist has on public opinion. Some — well, one — can cause car makers major headaches if their products fall into his disfavour, but the rest of us who earn a living out of judging whether a car is any good or not must live with the uncomfortable truth that, whatever we like to think, our words are unlikely to make much difference.
Even collectively, we’re a pretty impotent bunch. When Ford launched the fourthgeneration Escort back in 1990 the UK motoring press corps gave it the biggest kicking I can recall a car receiving in print. Did it stop it becoming the best-selling car in the country? It did not.
Partly this is because you don’t need me to make your mind up. I have mentioned before my firm conviction that when people ask me what car they should buy, what they seek is not advice but affirmation. They have already decided and it would be reassuring for me to confirm the wisdom of their choice. But if I don’t they’re not going to change their mind. Not usually, at least.
But there’s something else going on here too. Worrying though it is for someone in my position, most people don’t like the same things in cars that I do. I like cars that do well the job they’re designed for, be it to go very fast, use very little fuel, house lots of people in comfort or negotiate city streets. It seems to me, however, that for many people the overwhelming imperative is to buy something they think fits their image. A car as much for the benefit of the neighbours as themselves.
How else do you explain the bewildering success of cars like the Nissan Qashqai? It’s not a terrible car but it is very average, a car whose popularity is as unfathomable as its name.
And while we’re on the subject of Nissan, I’ve finally made my acquaintance with something called the Juke (above), which like the Qashqai is also being built in Sunderland and, looking at the orders, is heading for a similar level of success. Nissan calls it a ‘compact sports crossover’ and says it combines the best attributes of an SUV and a sports car. This is absurd: despite being available in four different trim levels with three engine options, just one of these combinations comes with four-wheel drive and, as that’s the most expensive, hardly anyone’s Juke will have any meaningful off-road ability. As for its sporting credentials, the one I drove came with the most powerful engine (190bhp) and while it felt reasonably swift, if there was anything truly sporting about the way it performed, I’m afraid to say it passed me by.
How could the company responsible for these two automotive nonentities also produce two of the most thought-provoking, mesmerising cars on the market? The Leaf and GT-R are about as far from each other as it is possible to be within the sphere of what can be used on the public road, but both go about their very different tasks with the same dedication and obsessive zeal.
I drove the recently revised GT-R around a fiendishly slippery old Niirburgring and found some truth in the claim of its creator Kazutoshi Mizuno that this was ‘the real GT-R’. The inference was that the car that’s won so much acclaim over the past three years was a kind of practice GT-R and only now has it been refined and honed to reflect truly its creator’s vision.
With me in the GT-R was Dirk Schoysman, surely the world’s most experienced Ringmeister. I first met Dirk years ago when he was on the point of clocking up his 10,000th lap of the world’s most feared circuit, but now he’s past 19,000 and counting. He drove first and apparently quite cautiously, the reason for which became apparent only when we swapped places. I’ve never known a lower grip level on that track and in the old GT-R I’d have been scared rigid, for that was a car I’d admired more than I’d liked and feared more than I respected.
But while the GT-R has been given a slug more power and a flatter torque curve, it was the chassis changes which most improved the car. There’s now a strut brace in the front, new dampers, and tyres changed in compound, construction and tread pattern. Suddenly, and even in these most difficult conditions, the GT-R flowed around the track, not just clearly quicker but easier and more enjoyable to drive.
More surreal than driving a GT-R around the ‘Ring was driving a Leaf around Silverstone. I’ve already driven and written about this, the first proper modern car to be designed as an entirely and exclusively electric machine, but this was the first time I’d been able to test it as an owner might. And no, I don’t think there’ll be too many Leafs doing track days, but if you had the chance to lap a circuit in one, you would too. And having learned only that it handles surprisingly well thanks to its major masses being concentrated very low down and within the wheelbase, and that if you’re really trying you can drain almost half the battery power in three laps, I headed out onto the roads of rural Northamptonshire.
The Leaf is supposed to be a car for the commuter belt but I found it unexpectedly capable outside its apparent comfort zone. Up to around 80mph it’ll not only keep up with the traffic, but drop most of it too, and all the time doing so in something close to silence. The driving environment is unexpectedly functional and appealing too. Were it not for a too-stiff ride quality it would barely put a foot wrong.
It got me thinking that perhaps Nissan is missing a trick here. I live in the Welsh borders and every day my wife drives the children 10 miles to school, repeating the operation in the afternoon. She drives a small diesel estate which, in theory, should be frugal. In practice it takes an age to warm up and reach peak operating efficiency, so it’s quite difficult to prise even 30mpg from it when, under other circumstances, it might do nearer 50. Freed from the constraints of the internal combustion engine, in that situation a Leaf would be near miraculous. If it didn’t cost £28,990 my name would be on the order book. It would be worth it just to turn up at school and see the faces of all the Range Rover Sport drivers. The Leaf has just been named European Car of the Year: rarely has the award been more richly deserved.
So, mind overflowing with admiration for Nissan, I head off to the Los Angeles Auto Show, where it unveils the Murano Cross Cabriolet. I’m not going to bother explaining what it is, other than to say it looks even worse than it sounds. Just be grateful it’s not going on sale here. I really can’t figure out this company…
My Motoring Month
What’s the new focus like? I really can’t say…
One day someone will set up a small and subversive car website which will publish all the stuff you’re not meant to know. Not just the trivial stuff such as which journalist smashed what supercar trying to be a bit too clever for the camera, but also important things like what the new Ford Focus is like. Oh yes, I know whether the most important car in Ford’s future is good, bad or indifferent because I’ve just spent two days driving it. But I’m not going to tell you.
Not yet at least. Ford’s only condition on providing me and certain other hacks with early access to the car was that I did not write about it before a certain date which has yet to pass. This system is a long-established and tiresome industry tradition which, without exception, always infuriates more people than it pleases. The idea is that everyone gets to publish at the same time so no single publication is favoured above another. The only problem with the idea is that it’s rubbish.
Let us say you make your date a Monday as it’s the first day of the week. Sounds fair enough, except it means my colleagues at The Sunday Times will have to wait until after all its rivals during the week and on Saturday have run the story before it gets its chance, at which point you have to question the value of running the story at all. Do it at the other end of the week and The Sun will be shining with pleasure while Autocar, faced with waiting until Wednesday, will quietly fume. Besides, with a car as important as this someone will always give into temptation and run the story early, thereby breaking this ’embargo’, a crime regarded as a cardinal sin by car manufacturers, yet one which appears to carry no penalty at all.
As for magazines like this, we can be a month behind the curve. So I will tell you all I can about the Focus, but not until the next issue.
Forget 4WD and buy some winter tyres
Twice in the last month I’ve been rung by people who’ve announced “I’ve decided to buy a four-wheel drive”, and once by someone who actually had. It worries me greatly that people continue to think they’re safer just because their engine’s power is directed in four rather than two directions. Emphatically they are not.
I spent some of the pre-Christmas cold snap driving a Porsche Panamera with four-wheel drive and it was useless. Huge and heavy, it didn’t steer or stop on the compacted snow that was part of daily life for the thick end of a fortnight. All its four-wheel drive did was allow it to accrue speed it could not then shed. By contrast the front-drive Alfa Giulieffa parked next to it was unexpectedly excellent. I hope that I managed to dissuade the Iwo who have yet to take the plunge, though I doubt it. But the one who’d already parted with the money had parked it in a light and skinny-tyred Fiat Panda 4×4, a first-class choice more than able to make off-roaders costing 10 times as much look fairly idiotic in such conditions.
But the point I’d still make to anyone labouring under the illusion that all-wheel drive will somehow keep you safe in the snow and ice is to save yourself a fortune and buy a set of winter tyres instead. They’ll not only help traction, but braking and cornering too. Put it this way, I would take a front-drive car on proper tyres over an all-wheel drive on standard rubber every day of the winter.
What’s your money on, MP4-12C or 458?
McLaren has released the price of its forthcoming supercar, the MP4-12C (above). At £168,500, the carbon-fibre machine undercuts the Ferrari 458 by a mere £1000.
Whatever else happens this year it is hard to imagine a comparison between two cars being more eagerly awaited than this. I’ve driven the Ferrari on road and track and have spent an afternoon in Woking crawling all over the McLaren, but I still wouldn’t want to guess the winner.
The McLaren should be faster because we believe it to be both more powerful and lighter than the Ferrari, but will this be offset by its turbo motors lack of aural occasion relative to the Ferrari’s screaming soundtrack and its far more dramatic appearance?
Only one thing seems sure: however hot the baffle between Ferrari and McLaren gets on the race track this year, its going to be nothing compared to what’s going on in the showrooms.