Thursday, 9 May 2013

SMMT Test Day at Millbrook Proving Ground (Part 1)



Driving new cars and writing about it, I would be good at that!  I thought that if Clarkson, Hammond, and May could do it, how hard could it be? I was wrong I’m sat here trying to write about the cars I test drove at the SMMT Millbrook Test Day and I can’t think of anything bad or even slightly controversial  to say, but that’s because they were all brilliant, and I couldn’t really fault them.

The nearest I got to a problem was when I was driving the Peugeot RCZ around the Hill Circuit, it was a beautiful day and I had the air conditioning on full blast, the cold air was blowing directly on to my left cheek, creating a vortex between the back of my sunglasses and my eye, this was causing it to water, I was forced to take my hand off  the perfectly balanced steering wheel and move the right central air vent about ¼ of an inch, problem solved and the rest of the drive was very enjoyable and went without incident.

Until the end of 1999 I was Sales Manager at Mercedes Benz, I had a new demonstrator every couple of months, usually it was an E Class, I always specced and ordered the cars, everyone else would get what I gave them, but mine would be an Avantgarde , Obsidian Black 2 Coat Metallic, Light Silver Grey Leather Upholstery, Black Ash Wood Trim, 19 Inch AMG Alloy Wheels and a Wood and Leather Steering Wheel, my car was referred to by the rest of the staff as “The Stealth”.

When I started working for myself, my customer base and target market was used cars priced from £3,000 to £5000, I would have some higher value type of convertible, usually a Porsche to drive myself on the rare days that I took off, to counteract my carbon foot print I would use another car from stock that was economical, that didn’t stand out, and wasn’t a red rag to less fortunate drivers, my daily smoker had to be something that I could go out in it and not be bothered if I had to abandon it over night. I once made the mistake of leaving a Honda on the road in Preston and when I came back to get it someone had kindly thrown a brick through the curved rear windscreen which cost £383.00 to replace, that’s the equivalent of 76 taxi rides to and from Preston Town centre, now I only use cars with non metallic paint and cheap windows.

I learned to drive when I was 12, the garage where I washed cars at weekend and school holidays left me alone to drive the used cars from the compound and put them on display, again in the old days if you started a car up twice without taking it for a run and getting it warmed up the plugs would foul, there was no chance of any help so by the time I was 13 I was proficient in changing or cleaning spark plugs, points, jump starting cars, siphoning petrol and I was also driving the cars with the radio on full blast, one hand on the wheel, and my other arm out of the window, I couldn’t wait to be able to drive legally, the next 5 years dragged by.

I booked my driving test for the morning of my 17th birthday, I was a little bit cocky, but just in case there was something I didn’t know, I booked a driving lesson directly before. It was the first lesson I had ever had and the first time that I had ever driven on a public road. When I told my driving instructor who had been doing the job for years and had taught my Mum to drive,  he was aghast, I had so many bad habits he didn’t know what to try and correct first, he didn’t have much faith in my abilities, but my Mum had 70 + lessons before she passed her test, so I didn’t have much faith in his either, he just looked me up and down, then sighed and said we’d better get started, then he barked as if he’d already told me a million times before,  and he was at his wits end,  “but before we do TAKE YOUR BLOODY ELBOW OFF THE ARMREST, SIT UP, AND PUT BOTH YOUR HANDS ON THE STEERING WHEEL!” I could tell he was worried about his pass ratio taking a knock, and perhaps his Ford Capri too.

So let’s recap, I’ve been driving for 38 years, 43 if you count round the forecourt and compound of the garage I worked at, I’ve driven, sold, serviced, and or repaired, pretty much every type of car they currently make from Fiats to Ferrari’s, and lots that they’ve either stopped making, or the manufacturers have gone out of business, so you would think that would have given me the necessary skills and expertise to be able to differentiate between a good car and a bad car, like the TV experts do.

The problem is that these days I don’t think there are any bad cars, they are all designed by computers, the shapes are pretty much dictated by the wind tunnels and drag coefficients, they are all tested to destruction using standardized methods, lots share the same engines and chassis, some models are identical in every way except for the badges, but supposedly they’re from different countries and different manufacturers, the only thing that’s guaranteed to be different in every car is the driver, and his/her prerequisites, this kind of rules me out as over the years, I’ve had no real choice in what I sold, I needed cars that were popular and fast moving stock that I could turn over quickly,  they may not have been the car that I would choose for myself, but if I didn’t like it, I didn’t moan, I just adapted my style of driving to suit it, if the pedals were slightly offset, or there wasn’t enough room for your feet without catching the steering column, I moved my legs, and bent my foot more, I didn’t winge to thousands of viewers or readers I got on with it.

Until a few months ago, the latest model run of the mill everyday car I had driven was probably a 2008, Renault, Ford, Nissan, Vauxhall etc etc. , and I admit I had completely lost touch with the progress that had been made in vehicle manufacturing,  so when I got a brand new 62 plate Ford Focus 1.6 Diesel Zetec 6 speed as a company car, I couldn’t believe just how good they were, how far Ford had come in the last 5 years, and how much their cars had improved, first impressions were that the car was a joy to drive and had every accessory that you could want, it also averaged 50mpg,

I was hoping to get nearer 60 mpg from the Ford as the 140,000 mile Mercedes Benz C270 Avantgarde Diesel Automatic that I had been using for the last 12 months had averaged between 40 and 43mpg, it had a lot more Brake Horse Power, torque and acceleration, it was effortless to drive, all I had to do was aim it, the problem with the new Ford was that once I had lived with it for a few weeks, I realised that I was constantly changing gear to keep the engine performing, and it was very unforgiving, I came to hate the M62, if you had to slow down in traffic there was no way you could pull away in 2nd gear without it stalling, but again that wasn’t a problem with the Ford, it was a problem with my lazy driving.

The Focus was delivered to my house, and when I went out that night I pulled up at the traffic lights, put the car in neutral and pulled my handbrake on, you may be thinking wow that’s some text book driving there Baz, if I’m honest I did it so that I wouldn’t roll back or creep forward into another car while I checked my Twitter account on my phone, anyway the engine cut out, I tried to catch it with the accelerator as I have done on hundreds of other occasions in the past, when I had run the car low on fuel and the carburettor had sucked dirt up from the bottom of the tank blocking the tickover/idle jet, there was a queue of traffic behind me and I was cursing my luck, this car had the latest computer controlled fuel injection, and it was half full of diesel,  I pressed the clutch to check it wasn’t in gear before I got out and pushed it to the side of the road, and the engine burst into life on its own.

The Ford had what I consider to be the most stupid device ever invented, it cuts the engine out at traffic lights to save fuel, it’s supposed to be for economy, but in my opinion it’s a false economy, it may save the first owner money, and perhaps even the second, but sooner or later all those extra starts will catch up, and some poor so and so is going to have to prematurely replace the starter motor, and may even have to have the gearbox removed and the flywheel and starter ring gear replaced too.

I don’t know how much it would cost on a Ford, but a couple of years ago I did have a customer wanting to part exchange an older Vauxhall Vectra,  he told me it drove perfectly. as customers do, in my experience expensive repairs cause some type of amnesia, when I test drove the car I could tell the clutch was faulty, it also juddered very badly on take up, which pointed to the dual mass flywheel being faulty too, fortunately I got a quote to have it repaired before I gave the guy a price, I never expected that it would cost anywhere near £950.00, but it meant that the car wasn’t worth repairing, in order for me to just take his car off him,  the customer would have to give me £500 cash and his car for nothing, effectively his car was a write off, let’s hope the Ford is cheaper to repair, or that the price of parts cost has come down substantially  (Hey, I’m getting into the swing of it now, that was a genuine concern and criticism, before you know it I will have the manufacturers crying themselves to sleep at night after reading my scathing expose)

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