Courtesy Cars

I love my car. It’s now official.

In the space of a couple of months I’ve had two courtesy cars and was impressed with neither. Stepping back into my Accord this afternoon was just heaven.

It all started back in March when I needed a replacement clutch, but it couldn’t be completed within the day. I therefore ended up with a courtesy car of a Honda Civc saloon. Now I’d already driven the new, angular Civic hatch and was less than impressed. Rear visibilty was poor, the diesel engine felt leaden, and the dash was starting to date horribly already. The engine was a real sore point, given that the same unit shoves my Accord along very happily, despite weighing about quarter of a ton more.

So I got this Honda Civic, but it was the saloon Hybrid drive system. This means an automatic gearbox (actually CVT) coupled with an electric motor and a little petrol engine. Normal gentle town driving uses the electric motor, heavier stuff brings the fossil fuels online.

Driving it was just weird. The first oddity was the fact that the engine switches off if you’re sitting at a junction with your foot on the brake (no clutch remember). That’s odd if you’re not used to it. Especially as there’s a definite jolt runs through the transmission when the engine does fire back up.

The main beef was the CVT gearbox, whose only purpose appeared to be to disconnect the engine completely from the wheels. Plant your foot at 60 and the engine just whined loudly with no extra progress being made. Nudge it along gently in traffic and the addition of the electric motor made it feel like it was permanently stalling. There was a rev counter, but I’ve no idea what that was supposed to be there for.

The Honda Civic was at least well-made, though. My next foray into guest vehicles was the devastatingly cheap Chevrolet Matiz (originally the Daewoo).

This is engineering on a severe budget. The model I received was the “deluxe” 1.0 SE version. This produces 64 bhp and 67 lb ft of torque. Put it another way: that’s around half the power and a quarter of the torque of my normal motor. Inside there are little in the way of creature comforts. Air con, electric front windows, and electric passenger mirror are about the limit of things. You can’t adjust the steering wheel in any direction. The driver’s side wing mirror is adjusted with a wiggly stick thing. Seats are a fully-manual affair.

But I really do get that. It’s all down to money and weight. I paid a reasonable sum of money for my car and got some nice options. I wasn’t disappointed, however, to find that my Accord didn’t have the gadget-list of a £100k Mercedes S-Class. In the same vein, I shouldn’t be disappointed with the Matiz when I’m missing a couple of motors for the chronically lazy.

Same with weight. Lighter means easier to move with a smaller engine. Smaller engine means cheaper and more fuel efficient. But that’s not my problem with the car. It’s aimed at being cheap, basic transport. No-one who buys this car will be under any impression that it is anything else. For cheap transport you expect thin, low quality plastics and very few trimmings.

My main problem is that nothing inside makes sense positioning-wise. For example, I’m just over 6ft. and obviously the seat needed to be right the way back. To operate the handbrake, I needed to move my arm so far back that my elbow poked past the seat backs. Now if you’re a 5ft 4in granny who drives with her nose on the windscreen, then I have absolutely no idea how she is to reach back that far.

To make things easier to transition between left- and right-hand drive versions, the speedo, rev counter, and fuel guage are all in the centre console at the top of the dash. Fair enough. But how much more money would it have been to make two versions of the mounting plastic – one which points it to a LH drive and one which points to a RH drive? As a result, the Transit which is currently up your arse on the M3 can read your speed more clearly than the driver.

The heater and vent controls are again, very basic. But why put them effectively on the floor, when there’s plenty space higher up the dash? I was reaching downwards to turn the heater down. And you can’t see the air-con button either because of your knee.

Just above the pedals is a small shelf designed to store something. No idea what, because it’s too small to be practical and secondly you’re going to die anyway. To drive this thing, you need to hook your feet underneath this shelf to get to the pedals. Thankfully I didn’t need to stop quickly, because I might not have got my feet out of the way fast enough.

And why could they not have got a clutch which was adjusted correctly? Only the top 3/4” of pedal travel provided the bite – after that the clutch was simply “off”.

Awful.

Wiper Trouble

My driver’s-side wiper has a small split in the end – about an inch long. That means I need some new wipers in the near future, but nothing urgent. That’s until I discovered that there was a 3 inch split in the centre of the blade, hence more urgency required. Given that main Honda dealer prices for something as trivial as a wiper blade were likely to be vastly inflated, I braved the tarted-up Saxos and Corsas for my local Halfords.

Before I left the house, I looked at their clever online tool, which confidently predicts the required wiper size for your vehicle. Simply enter your registration number and up pops your vehicle make and model, along with a list of suitable wiper-blade products. Online it reckoned I needed 24” on the driver’s side, and 16” on the passenger’s side.

So off I pop to the local shop and decide to make certain by leafing through the little flip-book that they have. This is a more manual version of the online tool – you lookup your make and model, along with model year and it gives you the various options. This suggested I needed 26” on driver’s side, and 16” on the passenger’s side.

Standing looking confused, one of the shop “assistants” asked if I needed any help. The conversation went like this:

“Can I help you there sir?”

“Yeah – I’m replacing the wipers on my car and the online tool said one size, but the book says another and I’m not sure which one to get. Do you have a tape measure I could borrow and pop outside to measure it please?”

“Well we can have a look on the computer and see what that says.”

“My car is just outside and will only take a minute.”

“Nah – we’ll have a look at the computer.”

OK then – fine. I sighed and wandered over to his little kingdom of the oily parts desk. After giving him my registration, he went quiet.

“Hmmm. Hmmm. That’s odd. Hmmm.”

“Yes?”

“Well the Halfords parts are showing up as needing 24 inch and the Bosch parts are showing up as needing 26 inch. If I were you I would get the bigger one.”

“But the difference between them is an inch at either end and that could be the difference between catching and not catching.”

“Well it depends on how far apart they are.”

At this point I was expecting someone to turn up with an honorary Physics degree from Oxford to pay testimony to his amazing spatial awareness. He then suggested we go outside and measure it, which I thought was a good plan, if a little late to the conversation.

It was late and there were only three cars in the (small) car-park: two of those probably belonged to staff because I didn’t see any other customers in there. Bearing in mind I had just given him the make, model and registration of my car, he asked me to point out which one it was.

He wandered round and measured 24” for the driver’s side. I needed to prompt him to check the passenger’s side. He measured that to be 15”.

He seemed quite put-out when I told him I was going to the main dealer because Halfords couldn’t get the sizes right.

I phoned the main dealer the following day and they promised £25 fitted for a proper Honda part. That was only just a little more than the Halfords’ own brand. When I went into the garage, they only charged me £21.73 fitted. And the service guy (who I trust) told me the Halfords ones don’t fit very well anyway.

All together: I can see clearly now with wipers on…

Window Shopping

The other evening, I spent a good 2 hours web browsing looking for a new car. Note that I am not changing my current 54 plate Honda Accord diesel, but like women go window shopping for bags, boots, and bracelets, I am window shopping for a new car.

It was probably prompted by the disappointingly early demise of the clutch on my current motor. 65k is not an acceptable distance for a modern clutch to last, but there we go. There is a glimmer at the end of the £500+ tunnel though – there’s lots of reports on the web of there being a manufacturing fault with clutches on Honda diesels and this causes premature failure, so there’s hope that Honda will replace it at a reduced cost.

The seed of doubt had been sown, however, and I went off to look around the internet for a virtual replacement. The basic premise of my next car would be that it would be:

  • relatively new (< 12 months) – this would take the major pain of depreciation off the car
  • low mileage – anything that’s done 25k in under a year is likely to have been lived in and hammered quite hard
  • diesel – for the fuel costs
  • estate – for the extra room we need

So let’s start looking round at what’s out there and why not start with another Accord? Well the latest Accord Tourer I just don’t like. I really do want to like it, but it just doesn’t look right, it tries to hard to be a 3-series / C-class / A4 rival and falls short by being too fussy and generally too Japanese. It’s also too expensive for what you get. That had been dismissed pretty much before I started clicking, so that was a no-brainer.

Alternatives then? I’ve really fancied a Volvo V70 for a while now and you can get a good one with a decent diesel engine for under £15k (their first-year depreciation is horrendous). But then I started reading around and considering some alternatives.

What about the BMW 3-series, Merc C-class, or Audi A4 offerings? Nah – their expensive initial purchase price combined with strong residuals means on my budget I would end up with an asthmatic poverty-spec wardrobe on wheels.

OK – so what else? The Renault Laguna, Citroen C5, and Peugeot 407 are all French. That instantly rules them out because I’m not trusting anything built by the French. That’s not a xenophobic statement, because it’s been proven time and time again. Most car review websites politely put it as “questionable reliability”, but we all know that French cars aren’t great.

Next on the list? Ford Mondeo. A very big estate, with lots of them out there (hence it’s a buyer’s market) and known reliability. Also offered with lots of toys on most models (including the infinitely desirable quick-clear windscreen for those icy mornings). It is a dull choice, but there again, it’s a diesel estate; I’m not likely to be the envy of the McDonalds car-park crowd anyway.

At this point I digressed a bit and dreamed of winning the lottery and ordering a brand-new BMW M5 Touring. In this colour:

BMW M5 Touring in lovely blue

Apparently that’s “Interlagos Blue”. Add some nice black perforated leather and a couple of “go-on-why-not” options and you’re handing over a cheque for 80 grand. Eventually I came to my senses and went back to the task in hand.

So from that I wandered over to Vauxhall and their latest repmobile offering in the Insignia. It’s actually a nice car – I’ve been in one and looks half decent. Unfortunately Vauxhall’s diesel range lets them down and there’s also complaints that the estate version isn’t as practical or roomy as one would like.

So what’s left in the real world then? The VW Passat is like most of their range – quite expensive for what you get. I never really considered Mazda or Nissan. There’s the Toyota Avensis but I really don’t fancy one at all (for no real reason). Skoda Octavia? Nah.

But then I suddenly had a thought. Do I really need a diesel? And secondly, do I really need an estate? The first question would involve some long sums considering fuel economy, price, car tax and estimated mileage (I only now do around 12k a year, rather than the 20k I used to do 4 years ago). That’s something for another day.

So it really boils down to “what extra I do I get with an estate?”. That’s actually a hard question to answer, because most reviews of estate cars quote “standard boot volume” (measured in litres). That is how much space you have up to the window line. The other figure they quote is usually maximum boot volume (including with the rear seats folded down). Now that’s useless for me, because I want lots of room with people in the back, not just for a day trip to B&Q.

I’ve given up window shopping – it’s too hard.

The Audi Channel

You may be aware of “The Audi Channel”, broadcasting on one of the Sky channels up in the high 800’s.

I was flicking through the TV guide the other day and spotted a programme called “Model Hour: A8”. The synopsis looked good too: “An in-depth look at the Audi A8”, so I decided to record it. Obviously it wasn’t going to be a reasonable, balanced, review of Audi’s flagship model, but I thought an hour admiring some of the tech on a £50k+ Jaguar XJ rival would be time well spent.

How wrong I was.

The first five minutes started quite promisingly, offering a teasing glimpse at some of the various features. The car was being driven round Cambridgeshire by some wet bloke cooing over “the sleek but masculine lines”. As expected it was all puffed-up Audi-speak, with the bloke stating “Some cars evoke strange hand gestures from other road users, but in an Audi A8 people treat you with respect…”. Oh yeah? Even when you’re doing 90mph down the M40 just inches from someone’s bumper?

You could forgive that stuff really – after all it is basically a moving picture version of the Audi catalogue. But then things got really odd. Until about 30 minutes in, all that happened was a bunch of no-name presenters drove other C-list celebrities round London in the car, talking about not much in particular. I say “until”, because after that point I just switched it off. Not even Sky+ at 30x could cure me of this ill. They had Matt Dawson (some rugby bod) in the car, talking about his A4 cabriolet and getting quite anal about the subtle difference between his leather and the one on the show car. There was also someone else, whose name escapes me, but presumably they were part of the Audi fan club too.

Audi channel – don’t bother, just read the brochure out loud to yourself and watch something less boring instead.

Bugger

I’ve been driving for 13 years, driven over 100,000 miles and never hit anything (not even a kerbed alloy) – until today. It was in Winchester Brookes car park and I managed to scrape the rear wheel arch on one of their many concrete pillars.

I was trying to find a place where we can all get out of the car easily – obviously with Lucy in her car seat, it’s hard finding space to swing the door open anyway, but the Brookes car park is particularly narrow and the supporting concrete pillars are over a foot wide. I tried to expertly put the car into a space, only to find I ran out of talent and succumbed to a wheel arch which I only now realise actually flares.

Before

After some gentle rubbing with soap and water, I managed to establish things weren’t as bad as they initially looked, but it will still need some professional help.

After

That wash also only confirmed how scruffy the rest of the car is. 🙁

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