• Charles

Spoilt for choice? I'll take the lot

I have wanted to write a review of a motorcar ever since reading Jeremy Clarkson's achingly funny reviews in the Sunday Times in the early 2000s. I reckon my opportunity has probably arrived, now that I regularly get to hire vehicles of all makes and guises (you find many puddings are identical beneath the icing). I consider myself to have sampled enough models over the last few years to enjoy informed contemplation of an important question: if I were to go out and buy a car, which would I choose?

The trouble is, although I love driving, I'd hate to actually be the owner of a car. This is partly because of the insane cost of absolutely everything. For comparison, I can buy a good bicycle for five hundred pounds, run it for a few years for free, then when something wears out I only need to fiddle about with an allen key for half an hour, then wheel it to the bike shop and pay a very jovial man fifty pounds to put it back together again. And, when you go back again five years later, he somehow remembers you.

But running a car for just one year costs more than a decade of bicycle ownership — in depreciation alone. Which means that, if you own a car, you may as well use it. And incredibly, it only keeps getting more expensive each time you take it out. A motorcar quintessentially exemplifies the economic doctrine of ‘sunk costs’.

The lack of appeal of driving — and never mind the traffic and pollution — may also be something to do with parking. Firstly, where I live could be considered a slightly embarrassing postcode, so it would quickly become tiresome having to park a quarter of a mile away to ensure my vehicle’s relative security. And whenever you get to another destination, you will have to drive round for an hour before finding a spot to park it, at which point you will have to pay even more money to leave it there. Annoyingly, you need to be able find the car again afterwards. In my case this is especially challenging as I usually have no recollection of either the model or even the colour of the car I arrived in.

Occasionally, you have momentary gratification in finding a side road where it will be free to park for two hours less than you need, until you get back to find an angry yellow flap on your windscreen saying that restrictions do in fact apply at all times except yesterday teatime. So you pay them some more money. And from this point you will start to get far more value out of your car because it will also become your only place to live.

So instead, many times a year, I pick up a new, clean, modern vehicle at my convenience, slot a piano in the back, and boot it through the English countryside towards the venue of my next gig. On the way to the car hire shop I wonder what I will be provided with. It's quite often a Vauxhall, to be honest — but will it be the peppy, surprisingly chuckable Astra diesel or the big, sophisticated, stridently confident Insignia saloon? I have only once been unlucky enough to pick up a Mokka — built by someone who needed a slower, less practical Astra and wanted it four feet in the air, for some reason — and am rarely handed the keys to the bland, automotive porridge that is branded the 'Corsa'; long journeys are tiring enough and it helps if the car isn't trying to bore you to sleep.

I’ve had some Japanese cars, and they are usually… fine. Actually, the only thing I can remember is that some were Toyotas and some Nissans and none of them is nearly as comfortable or as well-made as you'd expect. I do look forward to something French, though — I’m thinking of the Citroën Captur, here — because it'll be fun and quirky, with an indicator stalk that changes the radio station and the handbrake on the roof, or wherever the designer felt like putting it.

Hyundai? They're actually pretty good these days. The i40 is embarrassingly plasticky but all models seem to drive effortlessly, with light, twizzleable and flickable steering and controls. And I love the thumping Tuscon diesel. Wow. It's like a bull elephant — ordinarily a gentle and charming creature, but get a bit cross and it'll thunder the length of a whole country in one furious charge. But this one somehow still gets fifty-five to the gallon, and even a small elephant uses more than that.

Don't make the mistake of assuming the Tucson's impeccable genes were inherited from the old Santa Fe, however. I only had a Santa Fe once, and it burnt through an oil field's entire annual production on a single trip to Sheffield, mostly because I had to stay in third with my foot flat on the floor to trudge up every slight incline. I can't possibly see how something glued together from the contents of a domestic recycling bin can be so heavy. But then, it is monstrously huge. It doesn't need a garage so much as a hangar.

But if there were one car I'd like to keep for myself from my rentals… I’d be about to pick the Fiat Panda. But then, at the last second, I’d choose the Seat Leon FR diesel instead. In a practical sense, the Panda is everything you'd realistically ever need — and it’s immense fun, even though you'll never have a long enough run-up to worry about speeding tickets. But the Leon FR ate up all my music gear in one and still had room for cheese and pudding. It has enough torque to tow a house, the solidity of a very big tree, and simply the most beautifully damped and pliant suspension of anything I've ever ridden in. The roadholding was simply unbelievable, and I will never be brave enough to find out what its maximum cornering speeds could be. It accelerates like a startled gazelle, even in sixth, uphill, carrying a piano, and if you're already going extremely quickly.

For the first time ever, I even got up early to take it for a spin through the Peak District the morning I had to give it back. Haring through that exquisite scenery, feeling the sticky tyres grabbing onto the hot tarmac… it was wonderful to experience such a rare moment before the Leon and I had to part ways. Etiquette says you’re supposed to feed it before you drop it home, but after a weekend of driving, the fuel needle hadn’t even moved.

So yes, I can see why people feel a sense of freedom in keeping a car, and especially a car as well designed as that. But it’s really not freedom; not with all the worry of what might happen to it, the repairs, the fact you have to constantly look out for speed limits and cameras, not to mention the choking pollution you contribute to… although you can hardly claim that public transport is much of an alternative any more.

I love my occasional weekends of motoring, but I also enjoy the sense of lightness and relief on the Monday morning. Handing back the keys is a great reminder of responsibilities and inconveniences that I could really do without.


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