Swift les­son in driv­ing fun

The Weekend Australian - Life - - MOTORING -

I’m baf­fled by the car in­dus­try’s ap­par­ent re­luc­tance to think more se­ri­ously about hy­dro­gen as a re­place­ment for petrol and diesel. Hy­dro­gen is the most abun­dant el­e­ment in the uni­verse, so we wouldn’t run out of it for about a bil­lion years, and it’s clean, too. A car pow­ered by hy­dro­gen fuel cells emits noth­ing but wa­ter.

We have the tech­nol­ogy to make hy­dro­gen-pow­ered ve­hi­cles yet, by and large, the car in­dus­try is sit­ting on its hands. Sev­eral years ago, with a fan­fare pro­vided by a lone bu­gler on a dis­tant hill­side, Honda leased out a hand­ful of test ex­am­ples in Cal­i­for­nia, but then the bu­gler stopped play­ing and went home. We’ve heard very lit­tle since.

The de­mand for hy­dro­gen is so low that, in the whole of Bri­tain, only four pub­lic fill­ing sta­tions stock it.

Rather gamely, a small Welsh com­pany called River­sim­ple is swim­ming against the tide and has de­vel­oped a hy­dro­gen car called the Rasa. It’s clever be­cause it uses elec­tric­ity gar­nered from brak­ing to pro­vide ac­cel­er­a­tion and elec­tric­ity from hy­dro­gen fuel cells to pro­vide a gen­tle cruise.

But while the Rasa is made from all sorts of ex­otic ma­te­ri­als, the com­pany has given the poor lit­tle thing styling that Ri­ley would have dis­missed for be­ing rather old-fash­ioned, and then added tyres that WO Bent­ley would have called “a bit thin”. Any nor­mal per­son would look at it and think: “You know what — I think I’ll stick with my Ford Fi­esta.”

This is what the mod­ern-day pi­o­neers of fu­ture propul­sion sys­tems must re­mem­ber: we know how a car should look, and we sim­ply won’t take the plunge if it looks odd in any way.

It’s no good say­ing the Rasa weighs about the same as a mouse, uses al­most none of the world’s re­sources to move about, pro­duces only wa­ter and could be used at night, silently, to pro­vide elec­tric­ity for a whole street, which it could. Be­cause no one is go­ing to drive a car that causes peo­ple to laugh at them.

Ex­treme petrol­heads crave the ex­tra­or­di­nary and will even drive a car that has no wind­screen if they think it will de­liver one more mile an hour, but ev­ery­one else craves the or­di­nary. They want to blend in. And go­ing to the shops in a Rasa would be like go­ing to a fu­neral in a scuba suit. You wouldn’t blend at all.

Talk­ing of scuba suits, I re­cently needed one when I was film­ing in Bar­ba­dos for my new Ama­zon Prime mo­tor­ing show.

I also re­quired some wheels for this im­por­tant work, and that was a prob­lem, be­cause ev­ery sin­gle hire car on the en­tire is­land had been rented to some­one else. Which turned out to be good news, be­cause all th­ese peo­ple had drunk far too many rum punches to know what a car was, or that they’d rented one, or where it was, which meant I could nick it.

The car I de­cided to nick was a small Ja­panese sa­loon with black wheels and ex­tremely squeaky brakes. Each time I tried to slow down it sounded as if I was low­er­ing a ce­ment mixer on to a cat. Oh, and the steer­ing wheel was loose. And the en­gine was so gut­less that ev­ery time I tried to speed up, noth­ing hap­pened.

Bar­ba­dos is not a moun­tain­ous coun­try but there are a few gen­tle hills and all of them flum­moxed my small, white Ja­panese sa­loon car. I’d row away des­per­ately at the gear­lever, but it was fu­tile. The only way of get­ting up even the small­est in­cline (I nearly said “slope” then) was to ar­rive at it do­ing about 100mph.

How­ever, on the fourth day I grew to rather like it. And I didn’t work out why un­til the fifth day, when I re­alised that I’d some­how got into an­other small Ja­panese car and was us­ing that by mis­take. This one was dif­fer­ent from the first one, partly be­cause it was blue and partly be­cause it had a bul­let hole in the door. But mostly be­cause it was ex­cel­lent. So ex­cel­lent that I went round the back to see what it was. And sur­prise, sur­prise, it was a Suzuki Swift.

I know this car well. We used Swifts when play­ing games of car foot­ball on the Clark­son, Ham­mond and May world tour, so I know they are nippy and that they have a great turn­ing cir­cle, es­pe­cially if you use the hand­brake. I can also tell you, be­cause car foot­ball is quite a vi­o­lent con­tact sport, that they are good in a crash.

I have crashed a Suzuki Swift prob­a­bly 500 times in the past few years, so I know they can take an enor­mous im­pact with­out break­ing. The only real prob­lem is that the washer bot­tle can burst if you slam the front left cor­ner into James May’s door while do­ing about 110km/h.

I’ve even driven a Swift on the road. It was the Sport model and I seem to re­call I gave it four stars. I can’t re­call why I didn’t give it five, be­cause it was fast and fun and ex­tremely good value for money.

The car I drove in Bar­ba­dos was not the Sport. It was the cook­ing model, and I should imag­ine that it there­fore rep­re­sents even bet­ter value. You could prob­a­bly buy the car I had for about a pound. Mainly be­cause of the bul­let hole.

As you prob­a­bly know, my ev­ery­day car is a Volk­swa­gen Golf GTI. I drive one be­cause it costs less than £30,000 ($56,500) and does ev­ery­thing you could rea­son­ably ex­pect from a car to­day. Well, the Swift does ev­ery­thing for less than £10,000. So that makes it even bet­ter in my book.

It has whizzy ac­cel­er­a­tion, a smooth ride, space in the back for grown-ups, a de­cent boot, fun han­dling and ex­cel­lent fuel econ­omy. No, it can’t park it­self, there’s no WiFi hub and you have to use a map if you want to know where you’re go­ing. But it has a fuel gauge and elec­tric win­dows, and that’s all you need, re­ally.

Best of all, though, you don’t stand out. It’s a plain-Jane, or­di­nary box — 3.8m of car. It’s the short­est poppy in the field. And it should there­fore be the shape that all the fu­ture-fuel start-up busi­nesses adopt.

Be­cause if a car looked like this, pro­duced only wa­ter and could power our house at night, we’d buy it.

And then the mo­tor in­dus­try would stop fid­dling about with its point­less bat­ter­ies and its hy­brid-drive sys­tems and get on the only road where there is ac­tu­ally a fu­ture for per­sonal mo­bil­ity.

The hy­dro­gen road.

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