Don’t be fooled: this lit­tle raver rolls like a racer

The Weekend Australian - Life - - MOTORING -

IN THE past cou­ple of weeks I’ve been film­ing my an­nual Christ­mas-time DVD. This has two ben­e­fits. First, it con­trib­utes greatly to my kitchen ex­ten­sion, and sec­ond, it means I get to spend a cou­ple of weeks in Italy, driv­ing an aw­ful lot of other peo­ple’s very ex­pen­sive cars ex­tremely quickly, round cor­ners, while shout­ing.

Of­ten I have been shout­ing at my­self be­cause some­times the ex­pe­ri­ence of go­ing quickly round a cor­ner in the Ital­ian sun­shine has demon­strated a flaw that didn’t re­veal it­self when I drove the same car here in Bri­tain for a re­view on th­ese pages.

I was, you may re­call, much taken with the BMW M4 coupe when I wrote about it here a month back. I stand by that re­view. It did ev­ery­thing I asked of it very well. But at the Mugello race­track in Tus­cany, I asked it to do a big skid when go­ing round a cor­ner and it was ab­so­lutely hope­less.

In the past, BMW’s M cars were ex­tremely good at do­ing big skids. They were beau­ti­fully bal­anced, which, cou­pled with ex­cel­lent steer­ing and many brake horse­pow­ers, meant you could get the back end to step out of line and stay there un­til the end of time — or at least un­til the tyres burst.

How­ever, the new M4 has elec­tric power steer­ing, which means it feels much like the cars do on a PlayS­ta­tion game. Ar­ti­fi­cial. De­tached. Oh sure, you can still whip the back end out, no prob­lem at all, but keep it there? Hmm.

If you put the steer­ing in its Com­fort mode you have about two chances in 10. But in the Sport Plus set­ting, the op­tion de­signed to be used on a track? No. En­gage that and you are ei­ther go­ing to spin, or emerge on to the straight with the car zigzag­ging as though it’s be­ing at­tacked by a he­li­copter gun­ship. This means there’s a new con­clu­sion for the M4. If you are a nor­mal per­son and you drive nor­mally, it is good, but if you are a drift en­thu­si­ast you’d be bet­ter off run­ning. In shoes with mar­garine soles.

Af­ter I waved good­bye to the BMW I stepped into the Alfa Romeo 4C, a car about which I raved when I re­viewed it last Oc­to­ber. Sadly, though, at the Val­lelunga cir­cuit, just out­side Rome, I dis­cov­ered I hadn’t raved hard enough. Yes, it blew a turbo pipe, and had to spend half an hour in the hos­pi­tal, but apart from that, it was ab­so­lutely sen­sa­tional. It was like mo­tor­ing un­plugged. Grippy, com­mu­nica­tive, pretty, fast, eco­nom­i­cal, prac­ti­cal and an Alfa Romeo. To­day, back in Lon­don, I worry about the car I drove be­cause I fear it will now be in the hands of an­other man. Who may be treat­ing it badly in some way. I think I may be a lit­tle bit in love.

Which is more than can be said for the Volk­swa­gen Golf R. It’s ev­ery­thing I said it was sev­eral months ago — well made, dis­creet, fast and ex­tremely sen­si­ble. But it’s some­thing else as well: a teeny bit bor­ing. And I must con­fess that while I was driv­ing it in con­voy with a Mercedes A 45 AMG I grew weary quite quickly with not be­ing able to keep up. I like the Golf R. I think it’s well judged. But on the road from Naples to Posi­tano it didn’t light my fire. Per­haps be­cause I was still pin­ing for the lit­tle Alfa.

Mov­ing on to the Vaux­hall As­tra diesel, straight away we must ask a ques­tion. Hands up if you pine for this car and dream of the day when you can say to your friends, “Yes, I have made it. I have to­day or­dered a Vaux­hall As­tra diesel.” Any­one? Any­one?

This is the big­gest prob­lem with the As­tra. You don’t want one. And if your com­pany gives you one as a rep­mo­bil, you will al­most cer­tainly spend the even­ing look­ing in the lo­cal pa­per for an em­ployer that pro­vides its staff with some­thing else.

That’s why we chose the As­tra as Top Gear’s Rea­son­ably Priced Car. The whole point of this seg­ment in the show is we’d put big-name stars in the sort of ve­hi­cle that is so rea­son­able and in­of­fen­sive that even rea­son­able peo­ple would rather drive some­thing else. All the cars we’ve used in the past have fit­ted this bill well: the Suzuki Liana, the Chevro­let Lacetti and the Kia Cee-apos­tro­phe-d. They were all per­fectly good at noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar.

I was the one who cam­paigned hard for the Vaux­hall. I jumped up and down in the of­fice say­ing, “Come on, ev­ery­one. Imag­ine. Bryan Ferry in his white tux. In an As­tra. It’d be per­fect.”

But keen view­ers of the show will have no­ticed a prob­lem. The As­tra is ac­tu­ally a bit too good. Where its pre­de­ces­sors un­der­steered and ran out of revs, it grips and goes. I watch it ev­ery week com­ing round Gam­bon Cor­ner and think, “That thing has the roll of a rac­ing car.”

There’s more. The cur­rent gen­er­a­tion is good-look­ing and if you push and pull at all the bits of trim, you will quickly learn that it’s well made too. And, of course, it’s rea­son­ably priced.

The car that was sent to me for test­ing was an SRI and back in the 1980s this was the han­dle given to all of the na­tion’s over­per­form­ing sales reps. They weren’t the boss — they didn’t have a GT or GTE — but they were do­ing OK and as a re­ward, they were given a sporty fuel-in­jected hatch­back.

Things have changed. Be­cause the SRI I had been given was fit­ted with a diesel en­gine. I thought that was a bit odd for, ooh, about five min­utes. Then I put my foot down and it was like div­ing into a lake of torque. It’s a big lake too, with more torques in it than you get from an equiv­a­lent Volk­swa­gen or Re­nault. And that means you never re­ally need to change gear. It’ll always pull no mat­ter what the revs. And it’ll pull hard. This is a very good en­gine. Eco­nom­i­cal as well.

There is, of course, one draw­back. To­day, if you buy a diesel, peo­ple with smelly armpits, and teeth even worse than mine, will leap out at the lights and call you a child killer. I’m not sure why but they’ve got it into their heads that be­cause diesel-pow­ered buses and lor­ries pro­duce par­tic­u­lates — soot — from the ex­haust, diesel-pow­ered cars must do the same. And they do.

But fil­ters on cars such the As­tra mean that 99 per cent of th­ese par­tic­u­lates never see the light of day.

There’s talk that be­cause of the ecol­u­nacy, diesel will soon be taxed at a higher level than petrol in Lon­don. The so­lu­tion, you might think, is to buy a petrol-pow­ered As­tra, but if you do this, peo­ple with poor per­sonal hy­giene will leap out at the lights and call you a po­lar bear mur­derer.

You can’t win what­ever you do so just buy what suits you best.

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