Road cars

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It’s Car of the Year time again and depending on when you read this, you may already have the advantage on me in knowing the recipient of this highly coveted prize. As one of the six jurors that make up the UK’s contribution to this pan-European award, all I currently know are the names of the seven cars I voted for and the shortlist finally settled upon.

Choosing from a list of over 40 candidates was not easy, not because it contained so many contenders, but so few. Last year there was some prodigious talent to ponder but the class of 2010 seems to have spent most of the year looking out the window. I’d rank 2009’s VW Polo, Skoda Yeti and Toyota iQ ahead of any of this year’s crop.

I’ve let my choices be influenced more by fitness for purpose than personal appeal as I don’t think a shortlist of the Porsche 911 GT3 moves the debate on very far.

So, taken alphabetically, my first choice was the Alfa Giulietta. Alfa has won this event twice, with the 156 (1998) and 147(2001) but never in my view deserved it. But the Giulietta is its best new car since the ‘Sud. It has the engines and a chassis to make an Alfa worth driving again.

Next is Citroen’s D53. It’s not difficult to see why Citroen cannot keep up with demand for its sub-brand. The D53 is as expertly pitched as any new car we’ve seen this year, comprising just the right amount of style, driving pleasure and individuality to cause Mini the first real headache of its 10-year life.

Then it’s Ford’s all-new C-Max. In a normal year I expect it might have just failed to make the shortlist despite bringing new levels of ride and refinement to the class, elevating the compact MPV still further from its once traditional role as a basic beast of burden. But there’s nothing clever in the seating arrangements and the funto-drive factor that so distinguished the previous generation of C-Max has been diluted to a small but significant extent. Whether it would have fared better in my mind had I driven it without prior knowledge of the outstanding car it is replacing is a question I cannot answer.

The Jaguar XJ had no hope of winning, not least because our Eastern European and Scandinavian colleagues rarely vote for anything that is not small and affordable. But judged against the standards of its class I’d say it was a worthy contender. It achieves something few others on the list manage: in one respect at least it really moves the game on, providing its owner with an interior unrivalled by any comparable car. If what you want from your luxury car is a home from home, you’re going to need to buy a Rolls to do significantly better than this.

At the other end of the spectrum I included the Nissan Leaf. I admire Nissan for having the balls to make the world’s first purpose-built proper electric car (a G-Wiz is excluded on account of being a) a quadricycle, and b) execrable), but also for committing to build it in six-figure quantities in factories including their Sunderland facility. I believe the medium term still belongs to plug-in hybrids like the forthcoming Vauxhall Ampera because range anxiety is a neurosis for which there remains no known cure, but in the longer term the Leaf will be remembered as the car that started the revolution.

Talking of which, Peugeot’s RCZ coupe is changing the way I’ve looked at Peugeot for too many years. It’s not a great car, but it’s capable enough to have something to offer the discerning driver while its shape marks it out as one of the designs of the year. Like the D53, what stands out most is how well judged it is, how well it has understood the desires of its target customer and how fluently it has gone about realising them.

Finally the Vauxhall Meriva. I feel awkward even mentioning a car as prosaic as this on pages such as these but from its sliding side doors to its flexible, smart and versatile interior, it is as fit for purpose as any other mentioned here.

Pleasingly, five of my seven made it to the final. Unsurprisingly my colleagues saw fit not to include the XJ and the RCZ. Instead they voted in the new Volvo S60 — which I’d not have included if the shortlist had been twice as long — and the Dacia Duster, the Renault-designed quasi-SUV that’s selling out across Europe. Actually I thought hard about including the Duster because while it’s not remotely special, in its dirt-cheap, no-nonsense approach to family transport it is unusually in tune with the times.

What will win? As you may already know the answer, I see no point speculating. As for what I shall vote for, I need to (and will) drive the finalists before deciding. I’m tempted to give it to the Leaf not for what it is but for the revolution it represents. Other than that I think it’s between the Citroen and the Alfa, both of which would have struggled to make my shortlist last year.

I have remarked before on the obscene situation in London where a driver of a Lexus LS600h limousine pays nothing to drive in the Congestion Zone while the driver of a diesel Smart gets clobbered for the full amount. No longer. Boris has taken his time but from Christmas Eve and in exchange for an annual £10 subscription any car emitting 100g/ km of CO2 or less is exempted from the charge whether that car is powered by petrol, diesel, batteries, tea or anything else. And while preexisting hybrids emitting over 100g/km will be exempted for the next two years, if you register one after the end of 2010 you’ll be subject to the same charges as everyone else. Quite right too.

The Mayor has said that the qualifying level of exemption is a moveable feast. It will be reviewed in 2012 and may settle at 80g/km. While that sounds almost unbearably tough, by then rangeextender hybrids will be on sale, all of which should have no problem meeting the new mark.

The problem I foresee is uncertainty. How many people who might feel inclined to buy a sub-100g car will be put off by the fear it may be rendered ineligible in two years? The Mayor needs to say now when any new level will apply and what it will be, and make the period a minimum of three years from now. At the least he should make it clear that someone buying an eligible car today will remain entitled to at least a partial but substantial discount in the future.

Coincidentally, I bumped into Boris — almost literally — at a hotel in Oman. Not sure why he was there but I’d just got back from a day driving the new Bentley Continental GT (p112). It was the first time Bentley had launched a car in the Middle East but not, I suspect, the last. Oman is wonderful — once clear of the cities you can drive on perfect, empty roads. Oh, and you can brim the GT’s 20-gallon tank for less than £20.

*

My Motoring month

Driven to the point of madness in Morocco

Rags to the riches this month. Spent 10 days in Morocco driving from Marrakech over the Atlas mountains to the desert and back, a trip marred only by my chosen method of transport. In fact that’s not true: my preferred choice was a Ford Focus, something of which Mr Hertz was not only aware but had suggested on his website. But he still kept up his 100 per cent record of failing by a breathtaking margin to provide what I’d asked for. Last time the requested Ford C-Max mutated into a Fiat Stilo Station Wagon, proving Hertz’s ability to place intolerable burdens upon the phrase or similar’, this time my hoped-for Focus had turned into a Toyota Corolla.

As my family would be on board and driving in Morocco is sufficiently entertaining in any car this wouldn’t have been too terrible. Except what Hertz failed to mention was that someone had visited it in the small hours and removed the turbo from its diesel engine. I thought normally aspirated diesels died out with Betamax, but no, there’s at least one alive and well and living in North Africa.

It took a lot of net surfing even to find a reference to its existence but found it I did: and I can tell you that a Toyota Corolla 2.0XLD ‘Millenium’ has 71bhp. Or, to put it another way, exactly the same power as the cheapest Smart car money can buy. Online I saw an estimated 0-60mph time of 14.1sec but with four people and a bootful of luggage on board, I couldn’t get it there in under 20sec.

But you know how it is with hire cars you live with them and several hundred miles later a guilty fondness for the old bus starts to brew in your heart. Well not this time: by the time I flung it back at Hertz I had identified but one merit and that, like all Toyotas sold in countries where breaking down can be rather more than an inconvenience, is an abject refusal to break down. I’ll spare you what I put that poor thing through but suffice to say the only cars that came past in that time were competitors in the Rally of Morocco.

I’d like to say I planned to run into this Dakar curtain-raiser where the road south stops and the Sahara starts (it was won by Stephan° Peterhansel in a works BMW X3CC) but in fact one minute I was trying for the nth time to persuade the Corolla to do 100mph on the flat, the next the world was invaded by refugees from a Mad Max set.

All that sustained me was the knowledge that as soon as Michael O’Leary had dumped us back at Bristol airport, I was to drive to Silverstone for an Aston Martin-shaped encounter…

*

A breed apart – but still worthy of the name

Aston Martin’s plan to demonstrate just how similar are its competition and street cars failed spectacularly. They provided road and racing versions of the V12 Vantage and Rapide, and jumping from one to the other confirmed what I’d long suspected, namely that even if all you do is remove all unnecessary weight from a road car (which in the Rapide amounts to a staggering half a tonne) and bolt on race suspension, tyres and brakes the result will seem, at best, only distantly related to what you began with.

I’d not have it any other way: on the road the V12 Vantage and Rapide are wonderful cars, and for very different reasons quite the best Aston makes, but around a slippery Silverstone the Vantage was comically twitchy and the Rapide clearly far removed from its comfort zone. But the racers seemed born for such an environment, largely because they were.

Its not something racing drivers like to talk about because it suits them for you to believe that only the divinely gifted can conduct a racing car at speed, but the truth is cars like this are far easier to drive than their road-going relatives. This is not as surprising as it sounds. While road cars skitter and slide about on tyres with a life expectancy measurable in months or even years, race car rubber has to survive only a matter of minutes and the differences are every bit as big as that suggests.

True, the race Astons are more intimidating because they look mean and make lots of noise, but once you’re up to speed not only do they offer a precision you’d not recognise in the road versions but also revel in quite outrageous driving behaviour. Around Silverstone’s National circuit you could flick the race Vantage left into Maggoffs, which even on wets is nearly flat, and while its still cranked over in the corner mash the brakes to slow it for the sharp right at Beckeffs. If you’d tried that in the road car you’d probably leave the county.

These road Astons are among the best in the company’s history, their racing equivalents perfect for gentleman drivers who want user-friendly longdistance racers. Both breeds are brilliant, both have Aston Martin badges on their noses. There the similarities end.

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