Friday, 25 January 2008

Classic - Jaguar XJ-S

The British motor industry, such as it was, reminds me of myself as a child – full of grandiose and elaborate ideas, ambitiously embarked upon yet swiftly showing them to be harder and more complex than first anticipated, resulting in a half-arsed finish that would generally lead to much tutting and headshaking from parental quarters. (In the spirit of maintaining the simile, you can picture the British motor industry’s parental figure to be pretty much any car manufacturer or conglomerate that springs to mind, such was the voracity of the administrative buck-passing).

The Jaguar XJ-S is exactly the sort of car that my teenage self would probably have thought was a really good idea. It was doomed from the start; how on earth could one possibly hope to replace the iconic E-Type? It was tremendously, achingly sad to lose her but, well, it’s better to burn out than it is to rust. Neil Young said that. He knows a thing or two about longevity. Anyway, what sort of machine could ever hope to carry the torch of such a legend? A lithe, slippery superleggera Adonis, perhaps? A sinuous bruiser in the muscle car vein? A stripped-out race-car-with-number-plates affair…?

No. It was a pointy Coventry brawler with flying buttresses.

Still, on paper it was a winner. Avant-garde styling (for the seventies anyway), opulent and luxurious interior, Ferrari-baiting performance from the lusty V12… all of the ingredients are right. That said, one could postulate that Vera Lynn, Amy Winehouse, Siouxsie Sioux and Maria von Trapp have all shown themselves to be reasonably accomplished singers within their own genres, but mashing their vocals together in some sort of girl band might not be all that satisfying. Well, depends what your idea of entertainment is, I suppose.

For the mid-seventies, a 0-60 time of 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 157mph were not to be sniffed at and, Jaguar being Jaguar, the XJ-S was taken racing and made rather a name for itself. In the 1977 Trans Am series, for example, a car that was effectively a tweaked production-spec XJ-S made an impressive job of embarrassing its lightweight silhouette-racer rivals. With the combination of near-Italian power levels and a solid track reputation stemming from decades of racing heritage, the new car couldn’t fail, right?

Hmm. Unfortunately for Jaguar, they decided to launch a thirsty 5.3 litre V12 monster in the swirling aftermath of a pretty crushing fuel crisis, meaning that it wasn’t exactly the sort of thing most people were able to consider. Those that did shell out quickly discovered that Jaguar seemed to have fired their entire assembly-line workforce and were painstakingly and ham-fistedly relying on senior management to glue the cars together according to some annotated blueprints they’d seen in a marketing meeting once. Probably. As a PR exercise, Jag provided XJ-Ss to various TV shows to show how lovely and desirable they were; The Saint, for example, and The New Avengers. Such was their lack of faith in the cars’ reliability that they provided three cars for the latter to fulfil one role. This tells you all you need to know about Jaguar in the 1970s.

Buying one now is a risky business, unless you want to splash out £50k-odd for a modernised Knowles Wilkins car. Early models will rust pretty much anywhere, suspension bushes fail, coolant leaks out at random, as does power-steering fluid and transmission oil, and the electrics are a mystifying nightmare with pretty much anything with a wire in it likely to fail at some point. Head gaskets frequently blow, oil pressure unexpectedly disappears, blah blah blah… come on, old cars are like that. It’s easy to knock the XJ-S for its many, many faults, but take a step back and think about it objectively: you can get a good condition V12 XJ-S for about five grand. That’s tremendous value for money. For all its foibles, there are few feelings more special than that of sitting in a luxurious British grand tourer with a truly epic engine under the bonnet. And think how good you’d feel every time you glance out of the window and see it on the driveway – OK, it’s no E-Type, but it has flair, panache and brooding menace in spades.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Test Drive - Alfa Brera

Clichés are, for the most part, generally grounded in some sort of fact. That is the very nature of how they come to exist; Germans do monopolise sunbeds, buses often arrive in threes, Japanese tourists usually have got a tiny camcorder in their hand, fat people do order a Diet Coke with their Triple Whopper meal.

Of course, there has to come a time when the laughter stops, when the timeworn stereotype becomes defunct. Welcome to the glorious new dawn of Alfa Romeo. Banish to the darkest fiery corners of Hades the image of the hard shoulder littered with sorrowful, floundering Italian metal. Begone, tales of unpredictable and often downright dangerous electrics. Cast aside your archaic visions of panel-gaps that could happily accommodate a pineapple. These are exciting times. Alfas aren’t just about the engines any more…

The Brera is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a stunningly beautiful machine. More art than merely car, it exudes sex and sensuality in exactly the same manner that a Volkswagen Polo doesn’t. It’s a rare thing to find a car that is genuinely jaw-crashing-to-the-asphalt stunning from all conceivable angles, but this is truly a paid-up member of that exclusive club. One aches, one pines just to be near the thing. Climbing inside her is, well, something entirely other than else. Solar flares ignite the horizon, Persephone weeps for its beauty, Caliban curses the sheer devastating injustice of fate, and all seems gloriously right with the world.

It’s a marvel, plain and simple. Drink it in face-on; the octet of blaring illumination, the glorious, plunging grill harking back to the boat-tail Duettos of the fifties, the utter fuckoffedness of the offset number plate that Alfa stubbornly insist on gluing to the entire range – a saucy metaphor for the company ethos of form/function fusion. The backside is equally striking, an alluring and seductive peach with entirely unnecessary (and thus irresistibly beguiling) quad exhausts and a deliberately impractical tailgate. Who gives a toss about practicality? If you wanted a normal everyday car, you wouldn’t buy one that had miniature and unusable rear seats (which, to be honest are just a sumptuously upholstered shelf for your jacket; you’ll only get your mates in there if they’ve suffered some kind of hideous limb calamity).

Position yourself behind the wheel and it’s more than simply a matter of controlling a machine. You instantly feel an organic part of the whole, that you, the driver, are the element that vivifies the beast; goldenrod pollen to a bumblebee, Captain Morgan to Oliver Reed, liquid Schwartz to Lone Star – enter the cockpit and from thence arises adventure. The dials (deliciously labelled ‘acqua’, ‘olio’ and ‘benzina’) are angled for the driver’s eyes only, the steering-wheel is squat and thick, the SkyView roof offers supreme fishbowl clarity, the speedo starts on the six o’clock and reaches 270° to a tempting 160mph. It won’t get there by any means, but it’s a dashed good wheeze trying. In the centre of the display is an impressively comprehensive trip computer (yes, it all works properly too) which, among its many functions, has a ‘current fuel consumption’ feature. Now, this is a lot of fun. In second gear at 7000rpm you can get it down to 2.5mpg – I prostrate the gauntlet at your feet, reader.

Of course, you can’t see a bloody thing that’s going on behind you. The rear window is small enough, but factor in the bizarrely intrusive parcel-shelf and you find yourself peering through a letterbox. At night you can just about see headlights behind you, but that’s the best you can hope for. Add to this the microscopically diminutive rear side windows and you’ll find that, if you’re of normal height – meaning that your seat caresses the one behind it – you effectively have no view of what might be overtaking you, the mercifully colossal wing mirrors your only salvation. Obviously, there’s but one simple solution to this: stop driving like a dick. It’s a sports car, drive it properly and you won’t have to worry. Lamentably it wasn’t the range-topping 3.2 V6 that I found myself touring southern England in, but the 2.2 JTS. Still, life could be worse. The 2.2 has a spicy 185bhp, clever electronic trickery to maximise torque throughout the rev-range whichever gear you may find yourself in (affording spirited performance to even the most ham-fisted of pilots) and, best of all, the Alfa trademark: the noise. There are insufficient superlatives to describe the glory of a wailing Alfa four. Without a hint of fawning or hyperbole, it’s just fucking awe-inspiring. Gravel-gargling malice with a metallic edge of pure hedonistic evil. Couple this magically compliant, versatile and free-revving engine to one of the best gearboxes your narrator has ever had the fortune to stir – slick-shifting, perfectly-judged ratios, satisfyingly snickety – and you have a paradisically steamy proposition on your hands.

From the act of slipping the wacky keyfob into the dash and thumbing the starter button to the exhaust-ticking end of your journey, it’s really rather hard to find a single thing to complain about. You’ll find that your route has multiplied its mileage by a factor of ten simply by not allowing you to reach your destination without first exploring every yard of the surrounding country lanes. If you have it in your mind to drive a Brera, I urge you with every fibre of my being to buy the thing first. Trust me – giving the keys back is the most crushingly heartbreaking thing you will ever do.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Test Drive - Fiat X1/9

The phrase ‘big is beautiful’ is horribly inaccurate. Sure, it’s true in certain cases (the Viaduc de Millau, the Moai of Easter Island, a Michael Jordan three-pointer), but if you follow the tenet exclusively you’ll end up very disappointed. In fact, you’ll almost certainly find yourself in a Cadillac Escalade, listening to Meatloaf and wedging a deep-fried Mars bar between that other Jordan’s mighty knockers. And nobody needs that sort of surreal misery in their life. It’s just not on.

Small things are, of course, far better than big things. Flat-screen tellies are superior to CRT; mobile phones from the noughties make their nineties forebears look hilariously ungainly; Smarties are tastier than Minstrels; Kylie Minogue is hotter than Dannii Minogue. These facts are obvious. Another obvious fact is that Fiat, as a company, rather like making small sports cars. (Good link, eh? Seamless.)

One such example is the lovely old X1/9. Produced from 1972 all the way through to 1989, it must have had some inspired marketing for it to run for seventeen years before anyone in Turin realised that it’s borderline impossible for a fully-grown human to fit inside the thing. But this is not an issue, not really. With cars like this you don’t see problems, you see solutions. Strangely bendy, quasi-crippling solutions.

The X1/9’s trump card is that it is mid-engined, which even my grandma knows is the best possible configuration for a car in terms of balance, grip and handling. It may only have a dinky little 1500cc engine (1300cc on earlier models), but that’s all you need in a diminutive two-seater that weighs approximately as much as a Merc SL’s bootlid. It’s a fizzy, revvy little unit that might not set your pants on fire but works with the car as a holistic package of, well, fun-ness. Cheekiness, if you will. Hell, if you get bored with it, the Uno Turbo engine swaps right in, so there are always options…

Finding yourself in the position to borrow a minty-fresh ’83 model with merely a handful of miles on the clock is a superb position to be in. The example I found myself briefly unleashed with was so straight and clean it was almost worthy of the cliché ‘time-warp’ – right down to the hilarious Italian wiring faults that were undoubtedly present from the moment the little scamp rolled out of the factory. Indicate left, the horn beeps. Drive over a speed-bump, the horn beeps. Pop up the headlights, the horn beeps. It is, without a doubt, the most attention-seeking little reprobate I’ve ever driven.

But again, you don’t mind these foibles. It’s Italian, the electrics are supposed to work in a completely random and sporadic fashion. You barely notice these things anyway, as you’re having too much fun playing with it; it’s like a rambunctious terrier, leaping up at your crotch and yapping relentlessly. It just wants to play. Cocooned in lurid scarlet leather, you’re more than happy to oblige.

If you’re over six feet tall, you’ll have to alter your driving style somewhat. The steering wheel will be pushing into your thighs (your knees straddling your head like a mighty tarantula), so the easiest way to go round corners without chafing yourself is to fully depress both the clutch and the accelerator – this being the only way to get your legs clear. This means that you’re coasting round the corners and revving like a bastard, giving passers-by the embarrassing impression that you’re some Neanderthal twat who’s never driven an automobile before. Most unusual.

So on second thoughts, the X1/9 probably isn’t the car for me. This is a great shame, as I honestly can’t think of a single thing I don’t like about it. (Obviously there are a lot of things physically wrong with it; the aforementioned electrics, the inadequate cooling to the engine, the boot’s proximity to the exhaust meaning that anything you store in there will melt, reverse gear will disintegrate if you try to back it up even the slightest slope and, being Italian, it’ll rust to pieces in no time – but these are mere trivialities.) It’s a car that I’d be very proud to own… but it would do little more than skulk in the garage. I’m just too tall to drive it properly.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Volkswagen up!

It’s a harsh fact of reality that if you’re small, you’ve got to be quirky if you want to get anywhere. Look at the Krankies, Ronnie Corbett, Tom Cruise, Bernie Eccleston – all of them slightly freakish to look at but very successful within their chosen field (twattery, comedy, acting and ‘cash for fags’ respectively). Small people are easy to ignore, of course, so they need to shout above the tall folk – naturally louder with more body mass for sound resonance – to make themselves heard.

It’s the same with cars. The interesting and offbeat runts of the litter are more memorable, more alluring than those that favour functionality over character. Have a think about these conflicted pairings and see which you’d rather have on your driveway: Maestro or Alfasud? AX or 205? Astra or Delta? See, it’s the weird ones that stand the test of time. So it goes with the Volkswagen up! – the latest in a line of small VeeDubs.

VW have always had a slightly odd approach to small cars, in that they keep getting bigger and bigger. This is true throughout the motor industry of course, but Volkswagen in particular seem to have a certain flair for it. The Golf was the baby of the range when it was introduced in the mid-seventies but it inflated, leaving a, ahem, gulf beneath it which was filled by the Polo. Then it happened again so they had to bring in the Lupo. And then the Fox. So it makes sense for the up! to pop along - they just like making small cars.

up! is no ordinary small car though. Wolfsburg’s boffins have donned their mighty thinking caps and come up with something really rather clever… and it’s not unattractive either, admit it. You quite like it but aren’t sure why, right?

For starters, there’s a dinky little boxer engine in the back powering the rear wheels. This provides a nice heritage-y sort of feel harking back to the old Beetle, although it’s more likely that it was just done for packaging reasons (like the new Mitsubishi i); maximising internal space and wanging the wheels right out to the corners. The seats are really smart – as well as being strategically placed in the surprisingly roomy cabin to allow four fully grown adults to lounge about in there, they boast the ability to mould themselves perfectly to whoever parks their backside upon them due to their air-inflatable innards. Clever eh? It also has two swanky touch-screen monitors that look kind of like Tokyo’s idea of the future from about ten years ago (which is no bad thing); one to control the stereo, climate control, phone, photos, movies etc, and the other to display your dials and also give you info about how much CO2 you’re emitting. (Well, not you. The car.) Handy.

We’ve seen small cars before, so it’s easy to feel indifferent towards the news of such a concept. ‘Volkswagen releases new city car mock-up’. Big deal. But there is a nice little hook to the up! that suggests it may be rather more enduring than the Aygos, C1s and Smarts that are all trying a little too hard to be down with the yoof. We need small cars. That’s just a fact. London, for example, is clogged with automobiles, and the Chelsea tractor stereotypes are wholly true – pretty much every other car seems to be a 4x4 of some description, so the city market exists as long as mindsets can be altered. It’s just as well for the up! that it wears leviathan 18” wheels – they’re pretty off-roaderish aren’t they? That’ll help to overcome some housewife obstacles. (In terms of them not wanting to drive small cars I mean, not physically driving over housewives that are lying in your path. Although I’m sure the VW is capable of that too. I dunno, give it a try, let me know how you get on.)

So, it’s small, spacious, eco-friendly (ooh, that’s so important these days isn’t it? Show your neighbours that you pretend to care), it’s German so it’ll be well screwed together, there’ll be good warranty packages and dealer support should they decide to build the thing… it’s win-win all round. The best thing is that it’s a small car that doesn’t make you retch, and that’s hard to find these days. We just need to wait for the tuners to get hold of it: wider track, Phaeton W12 in the back, good times. For the city car market, things certainly seem to be looking up! And it’s important to put that exclamation mark there. Volkswagen do.