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