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.

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.

My Exploding Money

I’ve been driving around quite a bit more than normal in the past few months: mostly the usual commute to work as well as visiting family in the North East. We’re up in Sunderland just once more before Christmas, so I can look forward to spending a bit less on fuel. What I hadn’t appreciated was exactly how much diesel I have been using recently.

A quick pre-amble to the figures below: every time I buy fuel, I fill the tank. I need diesel and it’s painful buying the stuff so why make it any more frequent than need be? I also write down the odometer reading and the amount of fuel used: this lets me keep track of fuel economy, which is a handy way of keeping an eye on how the car is running as a whole. I use Microsoft Money to keep track of the finances, which means I can lookup any transaction I’ve ever made since starting to use the program. That all sounds quite anal, but it’s my little world and I’m not harming anyone, so there.

I filled up on 4th June with the odometer reading 48,121 miles. I filled up again on the 9th and 19th June, then on the 7th, 14th, 19th, and 29th July. Next fill-up was 4th August, then a huge break until another tank was needed on 24th, and again on the 30th. I filled up again yesterday, with the odometer reading 52,677.

A total of 4556 miles in just 99 days (that’s just over 14 weeks). If I kept on driving at that rate, that’s an annual average of 16,800 miles: perhaps not huge by a sales rep standards, but still pretty high for someone who works at home at least 2 days a week.

What is distressing is how much fuel those 4500 miles had required: a shade over 500 litres (110 gallons). Painfully putting all of that into money equates to £650, and that doesn’t include the £60-worth that I hosed in yesterday: the vast majority of which is still in the tank. Ouch.

On the plus side, I have a very nice 54-plate Honda Accord which makes the driving quite pleasurable, even for long journeys. And yet, for such a big, comfortable saloon I consistently get 41mpg which I certainly can’t complain about. I wouldn’t gain a great deal of economy if I bought a small eco-hatch and then we would struggle to get all the baby stuff in when it came to the long northerly trips.

Another bonus is the wonderful i-CDTi diesel engine manages to kick out just 140g/km of CO2, which means I still get into the (relatively) cheap road tax band C. That’s “just” £120 per year at the minute, with the cost actually falling to £110 per year in 2009. Result.