26 Sep 2019

A Tale of Golf, LSD and Chinese Rubber


A couple of years ago I owned a Golf R with the DSG gearbox. I sold that and bought a BMW for a few months as an interim measure, and then in spring this year bought a 2013 Mk7 Golf GTI with manual gearbox. The GTI is a Performance Pack model and comes with a limited slip differential and a few extra hp over the standard GTI.

It has 230bhp and 258lb ft of torque which is more than enough for a front wheel drive car. I've done several thousand miles in the GTI, and did Land's End to John O'Groats in one day in it. 852 miles in 15 hours. It proved itself fast and comfortable.

Despite being less powerful than the Golf R, and only being front wheel drive rather than four wheel drive I've enjoyed driving the GTI far more than the R.

The cars are almost identical inside, though the GTI has leather seats where the R had cloth. The ride is very similar - well damped if a little harsh on bumpy surfaces. Driving at pedestrian speeds you'd struggle to find any difference in the cars aside from the gearbox.

But put your foot down and the differences between the cars show themselves. The R was insanely fast and gripped like a limpet. It was fitted with Pirelli P Zeros and would corner well with little slip. It would understeer under power but this was controllable. I toured all round Europe in it and it was never less than fast and fun.

But when I first drove the GTI I realised what the R was missing. Soul.

The GTI has more power than grip available. This means you have to work with the car to apply the power so it's not lost through slip and spin. In the dry you can be quite rough with the throttle. It would wheelspin in first and second gears. In corners you could feel a tiny slip of the inside wheel before the LSD locked the axle and both wheels would pull at the same speed.

Combined with the precise manual gearbox it was an absolutely involving joy to work with.

Until it rained. In the rain it was a menace. And this was because when I bought the car it was fitted four brand new Chinese tyres, or ditch finders. And when the roads were wet their ability to clear water and find grip was found rather lacking.

In the wet you could spin the front wheels in third gear. I've had wheelspin, and sideways slip, on an open Scottish B-road at speeds in excess of 70mph. Exhilarating and scary at the same time.

It got to the point when it just wasn't funny. On a motorway roundabout I poked the throttle on a wet day and, because the locking diff did its stuff, both front wheels just span and caused the car to understeer halfway into the next lane.

So I finally got round to fitting some decent tyres and what a difference they made!

Last weekend the GTI was treated to a fresh set of Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 5s and, by heck, they're an improvement. It's rained almost constantly since and I've driven around 100 miles largely on the country lanes between home and the office.

In the wet the Golf is now an absolute joy to drive. You can feel and control sideways slip. It still spins and first and second gear but in third it holds on to the road. You have to ease the power on, be careful changing from first to second and concentrate hard as you reach the red line - a small crest or patch of shiny surface can cause wheelspin.

But it's predictable now whereas with the ditch finders it would just be hopeless. In a corner when you push on the power you feel the LSD engage and you use it's action to pull the car round the corner. It'll still understeer if you're brutal with the throttle but that's the point. It is involving and you have to use your skill and ability as a driver to get the best from it.

The R is sold as a more prestigious model than the GTI but the R is digital whereas the GTI is analogue, and I prefer analogue.

By Matt Hubbard


3 Jul 2019

Why You Need A Motocross Bike As A Second Bike

Us bikers are never happy with just one bike. We covet our bikes in a way that car owners rarely do.

Some of us ride regularly for work and for fun, others for weekend scratching, and some even ride motorcycles for a living. Bikes are becoming ever more specialised. Yes you can buy a bike that will cover a lot of bases but it’ll be compromised in one way or another.

I love my Triumph Tiger 800 XCX. For me it’s the perfect do-it-all bike. It carries luggage, is comfortable, has cruise control and heated grips and looks fantastic. I use it for work and for pleasure.

But it would be no good on the track. It has enough power but its weight is too high, its suspension too squashy and its brakes would start to overheat after a couple of laps.

For track use you want something a little lighter, lower and with better brakes. More power would be helpful but its more important that the bike has a good balance. On my one and only motorcycle track day I used my Triumph Street Triple 765 RS.

The Street Triple is a beautiful looking machine. It sounds good too. For that day on that track I felt amazing. Man and machine in perfect harmony. Whilst out on track I couldn’t have been happier. I could have run on and on for hours more.

My only concern was how much it would cost if I crashed it. The 765 RS is a ten grand bike and you aren’t insured on track.

I eventually sold the Street Triple because it was too focussed, too hardcore for the road. I didn’t find it comfortable in terms of the ride and riding position. In certain circumstances it was absolutely amazing but for more than fast road riding or track time it was too narrow in scope for me.

After the track day I went on a completely different kind of motorcycle experience day. I attended an off-road school. It was the Yamaha off-road school in Mid-Wales.

These bikes aren’t sleek and low and powerful. They are tall and narrow and run comparatively small engines with just a single cylinder, a handful of horsepower and knobbly tyres.

And they’re an absolute hoot to ride.

You still have to wear specialist clothing such as boots, helmets, gloves and suits, all of which you can buy from 24mx. The gear all has a purpose. Motocross boots are rigid and prevent you damaging your foot in one of your frequent spills. The clothing also needs to protect you from the elements because motocross riding is messy and muddy and wet.

The fun in motocross comes from the type of roads, trails and tracks you ride on. I’d never ridden off road before but by mid-morning was riding my 250cc beast around a forestry track that was so churned up it looked impossible to walk over, never mind ride a bike through.

You stand on the pegs and mostly ride at low speed, using extremely fine throttle, brake and clutch control. The bike’s front wheel is narrow and tall and spoked for strength. You can aim it at impossibly steep inclines and the smaller, fatter rear wheel will drive it forwards.

Unlike on a track bike if you do crash a motocross bike it will probably be at low speed and the likely damage will be minimal. In fact it would be amazing if you didn’t crash on your first few tries at it. You’ll pick yourself up, analyse what you did and try not to do it again.

Motocross is so much fun that were I to buy another bike I’d seriously consider one over a track focussed bike. You can buy motocross bikes for the road so that as long as your nearest green lane or off road track is not too far (they’re not very comfortable on a long journey) you could ride there.

By Matt Hubbard

2 Jul 2019

Land's End to John O'Groats In One Day In Three Epic Cars

I had been driving for three days non-stop and had covered 1500 miles. On that third day I had left the northern coast of Scotland at 9.30am. I only crossed back in to England at Gretna at 5.30pm. I was completely worn out but still had three hours driving that day, and four more hours the next day...

Scotland is huge. Far larger than you imagine. I've visited it many times and you can get really lost in the place. You do see other people but not very often. Unlike most of England northern Scotland is not flat. In fact it undulates quite a lot.

The result of this is that the roads are half empty and twist and turn with the scenery. And because Scotland is an exposed, windswept place and wasn't part of the UK when the Inclosure Acts were in place farmers weren't forced to create small fields with high hedges around the outside.

And this means you can see where you're going. Which means that driving round Scotland for fun is a really enjoyable experience. If that's your kind of thing.

I don't need much of an excuse to head to Scotland for a drive. And neither does Hannah, a friend who would visit regularly in her Porsche, and then decided she would actually move there earlier this year. So she sold her house in the Home Counties and bought a converted church in Moray.

We had both previously driven from John O'Groats to Land's End in one day and thought it would be a good idea to do the trip again, but the 'proper' way round and in the summer. And this time we would do it in convoy.

So we set a date - the last weekend in June - and asked if anyone else would like to do the trip with us. One person answered the call. A chap called Pete, from Hull.

Hannah organised the accommodation and I organised the route (it wasn't hard, there really only is one way to do it) and we drove down to Cornwall. We met Pete and headed to the excellent Old Success Inn in Sennen Cove for dinner and a pint. We all gelled and discussed the day ahead.

I suggested we start at exactly sunrise - 5.16am - and attempt to get to John O'Groats before sunset at 10.24pm. We all agreed. With an early start ahead of us we headed for an early night.

Land's End

Through thick fog the three of us met at the Land's End visitor centre. We took a photo at the famous sign post and drove the cars around to the front of the centre, under the big sign, for photos and the start.

All three of us are petrolheads and our cars reflected this. Hannah drives a Porsche Cayman GT4, Pete a BMW M2 and me a Golf GTI. My GTI is a 2013 model with 230hp and a limited slip differential. The other two have a lot more power and are rear wheel drive!

I've owned the Golf since March and have really grown to like it. The LSD makes a huge difference and the power feels plenty for a front wheel drive car. The dealer who sold it me fitted it with brand new tyres which is great but they are a cheap Chinese brand which are not great. They're fine in the dry but in the wet are about as effective as Diane Abbot in a maths exam.

At 5.16am precisely we started. We were all absolutely buzzing. Despite the fog visibility was reasonable and we enjoyed careening round the Cornish lanes. Within a couple of hundred yards you are on the A30 but at this point it is a single lane and very twisty. I led and drove as fast as felt safe.

After the rush of the lanes we arrived in Penzance. At this early time the roads were almost deserted and we made good progress. I was in the lead and was taking the racing line where possible - white line to white line, cross the middle line where visibility allowed - to keep efficiency up.

We passed urban areas of Cambourne and Redruth where the A30 is more dual carriageway than motorway with roundabout after roundabout. 

That this trip was a convoy meant I had others to keep an eye on but it was apparent after a very short amount of time that Pete and Hannah were expert drivers. We were flowing well. We all indicated when necessary, kept appropriate distance without lagging too far behind and had good lane discipline. 

I had created a 22 hour, 291 song playlist and as we hit the open countryside - hardly visible in the fog - Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones was playing at max volume. My eyes were on stalks, checking for any hazard. 

Hannah was running in the middle of the pack and her GT4 looked epic in the mirror.

We had been messaging each other before the trip on WhatsApp and I thought I'd see if we could use the app to make a three way call. It worked and we chatted away about the roads, how happy we were to be finally underway after talking about the trip for months and about when we'd need to stop. 

None of us had set off with a full tank of fuel. From full my Golf will has a range of 400 miles on a good run but the Porsche and BMW would only manage 300 miles, and probably less at a decent pace.

As we passed through Cornwall and into Devon the fog lifted and we were greeted by fantastic views and open roads. We decided to by pass Exeter services, which are bloody awful and very expensive, and stop at the next.

Which turned out to be Cullompton. We fuelled up, bought food and drinks and left again at 7.20am.

I have never in my life travelled the length of the M5 and M6 without being stuck in traffic at least once but the next few hours were a dream. We saw other cars but the roads weren't busy. Amazingly the other driver's lane discipline wasn't too bad either.

We continued driving in tight formation, taking it in turns to lead, to be in the middle and to hang at the rear. Both the M2 and GT4 looked great in my mirrors and through the windscreen.

I was still on a high. Energy levels right up there. The road beneath my wheels was rendered smooth by the Golf's chassis. Music pumping. Big smile. Moving high and moving fast. Machines clean, so sweet and mean.

The sun was out and parts of Europe were enjoying the hottest day on record. England was warm but not scorching. I sat low in the seat, enjoying the buzz. Sunglasses. In the zone. Keep us on the road.

We chatted some more. Hannah and I knew each other only through social media before the trip. We'd spoken and messaged but only met once, at the Sunday Scramble at Bicester. Neither of us had met Pete in real life before the trip.

So we talked and talked. About our jobs and cars and life. Pleasant and enjoyable. Good company and good cars.

Charnock Richard

It was 11.15am and we had travelled 371 miles. The cars needed fuelling and we all needed a stretch and a refresh. We parked up and rolled out of our cars - Pete and I almost literally. Hannah, who's car was the most extreme of the three with bucket seats and harness seat belts was much more limber.

We swapped stories of what we'd seen and how we were doing and how we were all amazed at how little traffic we'd encountered.

It was good to walk around awhile. I bought a sandwich and we were robbed blind at the petrol station (£1.49 a litre!)

And then after just a short stop we were off again.

And after a few minutes we stopped. There was a crash on the M6. Arse. Hannah and I were using a satnav app called Waze which didn't suggest any alternative but to sit in the traffic but Pete was using his BMW's satnav and it reckoned we could save twenty minutes by turning off, so we did.

We followed a few local roads and then were stuck in urban dual carriageway hell. It took fifteen minutes to get out of a particularly busy junction, along with half the M6.

But then we found a quieter route and trundled through a place called Bamber Bridge which had some fairly interesting shop names. We all giggled at the Exotic Sunbed Lounge, guffawed at the Pump and Truncheon pub and laughed at the Blonde on Top - a hairdressers.

After a queue to get back on the M6 we were finally back on our route and up to speed.

Lancashire turned to Cumbria turned to the beautiful Lake District. And then we were in Scotland. The scenery didn't change dramatically. The motorway is a thin ribbon of tarmac cutting through massive, open, rolling scenery. Green from plenty of rain and just enough sunshine.

Happily the sun was out for us. The weather had been kind. After the fog burned off in the early morning we had only seen sunshine. But as we stopped again in Hamilton there were warnings of rain ahead.

It was 2.30pm and again the cars needed fuel and the drivers needed a break. We had covered 551 miles and were all beginning to feel a little weary.

We had continued to talk during the trip and all of us felt like it was the evening, even though it was early afternoon. It was almost a surprise that it wasn't. It was a kind of jet lag caused by a very early morning and nine hours on the road.

We got going again. Almost 300 miles to go but miles covered on Scottish roads. Our blistering pace would be slowed a great deal. Our sat navs said we would be at John O'Groats by 8.10pm - almost six hours away.

It is around Stirling that the motorway finally ends. It peters out from three to two lanes and the blue signs stop and the green ones start.

And then you are on the A9 and in average speed camera hell. The scenery is great and the road quite lovely but the average cameras castrate what could be a good drive. Drivers on the A9 don't think. They just comply. Cruise control set to 60 or 70 depending on whether it's single or dual carriageway and drone on and on and on.

Finally after two hours of this rubbish we were free. We passed through Inverness and our pace picked up.

Our energy levels picked up too. I had listened to an audiobook through the speed cameras but that was turned off and huge slabs of Metallica pumped through my speakers as Pete took the lead and I gamely followed, Hannah's Cayman in my mirrors.

The weariness and aching bones were gone and we developed a second wind, invigorated by the scenery, the roads and the Scottish air. We passed through a town and saw several people wearing kilts and tam o'shanters. Hannah and I argued on the phone whether a chap we had seen was a full ginger or a strawberry blonde.

The M2 and Cayman GT4 sounded awesome. I could hear both of them under acceleration. Throaty, growling roars. They also handled better than my Golf. They cornered flat and true whilst I had to be creative with the width of the road and aware of my grip levels.

The road became more winding and challenging. These were the drivers roads we had been seeking, We stopped for a break and photo op on the Dornoch Firth Bridge and that would be the last time we would stop. It was 6.30pm and we still had almost two hours to go.

The rain which had been threatening decided to set in. Sometimes drizzle, sometimes heavy. It affected our visibility and our grip levels. Hannah's rear slid a little and my front end slid a lot as I powered out of a corner and the tyres lost grip.

Teeth were gritted and eyes were on stalks. The drive was good and the cars looked, felt and sounded amazing. I don't think we could have picked three better cars for the job.

As the miles counted down so did the anticipation. We drove fast and we drove well. Everyone within their comfort zones. Everyone enjoying themselves.

John O'Groats

After a particularly intense final half hour we were finally there. John O'Groats. We parked up right next to the sign and hugged and high fived and jumped around. We took photos and savoured the moment.

And then it was over. We had driven 842 miles and we had arrived at 8.08pm, more than two hours before sunset.

We three had essentially been strangers before we started but we had bonded during our trip and after we dumped our stuff and met in the local pub for pints (and wine) and dinner we felt a mutual sense of satisfaction. That we had done something adventurous and extraordinary.

The next day we set off to our various homes. We met for coffee in Perth, hugged again and went our separate ways.

I decided to add an hour or so to my journey and avoided the dreadful A9 and took the incredible Old Military Road through Braemar where my car received a damn good thrashing and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I drove the entire day and arrived at my brother's house in Cheshire at 8pm.

As I said at the start Scotland is huge.

When I finally arrived home on the Monday I had covered 1655 miles, been in the driving seat for 30 hours 17 minutes and averaged 34mpg. And made two good friends.

By Matt Hubbard


25 Jun 2019

4 Old In-Car Features that the Younger Generation Won’t Quite Be Able to Comprehend


Every generation goes through a significant amount of change as new innovations or social attitudes replace those that have come before. However, the speed of which society is evolving seems to be increasing exponentially due to advances in technology and continuing globalisation.

In the motoring world, we haven’t quite reached the stage of having flying cars as we were promised in ‘Back to the Future’, but vehicles have changed significantly over the last few decades. Here are a few features of driving that the younger generation may find it hard to understand. Hopefully, wheels will make it onto this list in the next decade or so!

A to Z maps

Remember having to think about how you were going to get to a location before starting the car? A to Z maps had to be studied in advance and directions written down before any unknown journey commenced. As the internet evolved and home printers became common place, studying the A to Z eventually give way to printing off directions from the world wide web. Now we just tap a postcode into our sat nav or smartphone and off we go. They say in-car technology distracts us from the road, but trying to look at a map or reading scribblings from a piece of A4 on the passenger seat didn’t make driving particularly safe in the old days!

Wind-down windows

Now-a-days, everything from opening a garage door to a can of beans can be done at the push of a button. This also includes car windows. However, not that long ago, all four passenger windows and, sometimes, even the sun roof had to be manually opened using a crank handle. This made it particularly awkward for drivers when they were pulled over, as the police officer had to patiently wait whilst the offender slowly struggled to wind down the window.

This eventually evolved into buttons in the front and crank handles in the back (maybe because kids have more energy!), but in most modern vehicles all passenger windows are controlled by the simple press of a digit. No wonder we are getting fatter as a nation!

Cigarette lighters

Surprisingly, it wasn’t that long ago that smoking cigarettes was so socially acceptable that you could light up anywhere, including inside public venues such as cinemas and restaurants, and cigarette lighters were included as standard in most vehicles. The lighter its self is no longer a feature in modern cars, but the power socket still remains. It is also still referred to as the cigarette lighter by those of a certain age, but it is mainly now used to charge smartphones.

A cigarette lighter did, however, make an appearance recently in a modern movie. In the first Deadpool film, the Marvel anti-hero dispensed of one of his adversaries in an in-car fight by making him swallow one whole. Anyone under 30 must have wondered where the glowing metal stub came from!

Cassette players

Currently, CD players in cars are slowly being phased out as more and more drivers connect to Spotify through their infotainment systems via Bluetooth. Therefore, the days of raffling through every CD case in the car to find the desired album (because every disc has been put into the wrong sleeve) are almost behind us.

In-car Mini Discsplayers came and went quicker than Usain Bolt over 100 metres, but prior to this came the in-car cassette player. Young people will never understand what it is like to have to flip over a cassette half way through an album or to drive whilst wrestling with an 80m magnetic tape worm!

About The Author:

Flexed Car Leasing are specialists in 28 day car leasing. To lease a car with all the mod cons from 28 days up to a year, please visit the Flexed website!


1 Apr 2019

Somebody Almost Killed Me On My Ride Home Today - By Not Being Observant


I'm a very experienced motorcyclist. I only passed my test when I was 32 but I've spent the following 16 years riding on average 8,000 miles a year.

I ride in winter and in the rain. I commute and tour and ride for fun on a weekend and summer evening. On the bike I constantly think about my skills and how I can improve them. I know my limits and I enjoy pushing them so I can understand more about the bike and myself.

I'm a fast rider and, I think, I'm a safe rider. I concentrate and think and observe and react according to conditions and hazards and other road users. But sometimes you cannot prepare for an event and it just smacks you right in the face and you have to deal with it there and then.

On my commute home today somebody almost killed me - and he didn't even know about it until it was too late.

My commute is 15 miles of roads that are tree lined, winding, poorly paved and with elevation changes. I'm often stuck behind people trundling along at 40mph in a 60mph limit. I will overtake as soon as is safe. When the traffic comes to a stop for a set of lights or roundabout I will filter past them.

I'm confident and happy to ride quickly if conditions allow. On the way into work this morning I overtook a car who was ignorant of his surroundings, and the fact I was in them until I appeared in front of him, and beeped his horn in anger. I ignored him in his ridiculous Audi Q8 and sped off.

This kind of thing happens often. Car drivers in their steel safety cages - unaware and detached from their environment in their own little bubble. They look down at their phones - I see dozens of them every day - and rely on peripheral vision and driver aids to steer them right. And if they do crash their cars are safe enough to save them from major damage.

We bikers have to be on red alert at ALL TIMES.

Unfortunately on the way home I wasn't quite on red alert. The road was clear and dry and the light was good. Perfect riding conditions. I was happy and I let my mind wander just a little. I was thinking of things other than my immediate surroundings.

I was travelling at 60mph and there was nothing ahead of me except a junction on the right and a parking area on the left - the one in the image above. I observed that there were no cars parked on the left and no-one was waiting on the right.

But then all of a sudden there was something. A grey Honda CR-V. It didn't stop, pulled right on to the road ahead of me. I was travelling at 27 metres a second and he was pulling out of the junction at 5mph.

I first saw him with about 70 metres distance between us. Me doing 60mph and him slowly pulling across the right hand carriageway and into mine at walking speed.

The following three seconds happened in slow motion.

My brain allowed me to think and do several things at once.

The first - pull the brake lever HARD. But not grab it - it has to be progressive. My tires are in good condition and are a good brand but 300kg of bike and rider being pulled to a stop with a contact patch the size of a credit card means no matter how good the rubber the way you brake counts as much as how hard you brake.

Get the initial bite right and then you can pull as hard as you like. Grab at the lever and you can lock up, skid and fall down. If I did this I'd probably die.

Once the tyre was engaged with the road and started to compress - half a second at most - I pulled at it for all my life.

And it did feel like my life could be stopped short. The driver was totally unaware and was not giving me space either side. By the time I arrived at him he would be diagonal across the lane, just short of fully straightening up.

I thought about heading to his right but then if I did go down I could be hit by an oncoming car - and that would certainly be fatal.

I thought about heading to his left but the bank was steep and dusty and this would affect grip. I would certainly fall down and may end up overtaking him whilst falling over and possibly ending up under his wheels.

Instead I opted to stay in the middle where the grip would be at its highest. And it is most efficient to brake in a straight line.

As all this happened, as I hurtled toward the rear of the Honda, I thought about my son at home. What he would think and how he would react if someone called at the door and told him his Dad had been killed. I thought about my dog and what would happen to her if I wasn't around.

All of this happened in three seconds and 75 metres. My teeth gritted, my eyes on stalks I came within 12 inches of the CRV's rear bumper.

Immediately the "emergency mode" my brain had been in turned to "red mist". I overtook the Honda, by this point doing 40, and gesticulated at him. The driver, a middle aged Asian man, had obviously not seen me. He had no idea why I was waving my arms and ranting at him.

He had pulled out of a side road and not looked to see if there was anybody coming. Attempted murder by total ignorance.

After forcing him to slow to a crawl, further arm gesticulation from me and blank and bewildered  faces from him I realised he really had no idea what was going on. I sped off but after half a mile found somewhere to pull over and stopped for five minutes to compose myself.

He passed me and I waited a while. By then I'd calmed down and thought I ought to put some distance between him and me.

I reflected as I rode home. I take risks every time I go out on the bike. You can be the best and most experienced motorcyclist in the land but there will always be someone waiting to kill you with their ignorance.

All you can do is be as prepared as possible. I'll never stop biking just because of uneducated ignoramuses. I just have to resolve to manage my response to them as best as possible.

By

Matt Hubbard



27 Mar 2019

Seat Mii Review

My son turns 17 this year and in the UK this means he's eligible to drive - once he passes the test. In anticipation of the big event I've been taking him to Mercedes World at Brooklands for under 17s driving lessons. 

He started at age 14 in a B 180 CDI and has since driven an A 200, ML 350 and, most recently, A45 AMG. All these lessons took place within the confines of Mercedes' own tracks at Brooklands. The ML drive was at their off road circuit and the A 45 AMG was at their fastest track and on the drag strip.

So I'm the kind of parent who wants their child to be ready to go when it comes to driving. Fact is I wanted him to be able to drive a car before he turned 17 so that during his lessons on the road he'll be able to focus on road craft and hazards. In over 30 years of driving I've not had a single crash. I'd like to do my best to ensure my son has a chance of having a similar crash-free record.

As a petrol-head I wanted to buy him a decent car in readiness for his birthday. In 2016 we went on holiday to Ibiza and hired a Fiat 500 convertible. We razzed around the island in this thing and had a ball. We loved it. The steering was light, the driving position bloody awful and the entire experience fun.

So we decided his first car would be a Fiat 500.

In 2017 we holidayed in Majorca and hired a Smart ForFour, the one based on the Renault Twingo with the engine under the boot floor, and it was awful. We definitely weren't buying one of those.

So I spent every moment looking at Fiat 500s. I wanted to spend £2,000 and there were lots in budget. Trouble is every single one I looked at had a long list of MOT advisories. Frequent issues were rusty springs, bodywork issues, loose ball joints, failing brakes and holes in exhausts. We went to see a couple and they were dreadful.

And the dealers selling them (there were almost none for sale privately) were gormless idiots who seemed not to think that a service history was important. They thought polishing the tyres and the dashboard was more attractive than the engine being looked after by a decent garage.

Eventually I gave up and started to look at VW Up!s. I had to up the budget to £3,000 and even so there weren't many around. I found one local to me at a car supermarket. It had a history - though it looked super dodgy with the same hand writing in the service book - and the price was OK. Then when I said I'd buy it they added £200 on the price as an 'administrative fee'. 

I baulked at this and tried to negotiate but they came down real heavy. We went to see the manager who sat at his desk trying on all the usual bulls*t tactics, stroking his handlebar moustache as he looked at his computer, typed some stuff, looked at me, sucked his teeth and said he couldn't remove the fee.

We walked, They phoned and tried to talk more. I'd had enough. We stayed away. Cowboys.

Then I found a Seat Mii at a dealer down in Sussex. It was new enough and had highish mileage but a service history to support it.


I went down to Horsham to see it. It was lovely. It drove well and seemed an honest car. Hallelujah! I had found an honest dealer selling an honest car!!!! I negotiated £200 off the price and told the dealer I would get the car picked up, at which point he offered to deliver it for £100. I agreed.

Since then I have driven the Mii several hundred miles and enjoyed every single one of them.

It is black and is an SE. It's very important not to buy the base model.

The Seat Mii, VW Up! and Skoda Citigo are identical with the exception of front grille and badges - and colour schemes. The base model for all is very basic. No alloy wheels, no electric windows, no ESC, no split rear seats, no air conditioning, no central locking, no remote entry and no seat height adjust. The SE trim has all these. The base model also has a plastic steering wheel. Urgh, no thanks.

Our SE also has a predominantly white interior with black and grey inserts and looks very cool. It reminds me of a 1970s sci-fi palette. The materials are hard wearing and the plastics look and feel good. I particularly like the white dash trim which is hard and smooth and doesn't feel scratchy and cheap.

The dials are clear but when you adjust the driver's seat to suit you cannot see the top of the speedo. Apparently this is common to all three models.

The steering wheel adjusts for rake but not reach, and it could really do with it. As such the driving position for anyone of normal dimensions is compromised. Your knees and ankles bend a little too much - but not as much as in an Alfa Romeo.

The interior is spacious and is well designed with deep door pockets and a shelf to put your phone, out of the way of temptation for the youngsters who would normally drive it.

The stereo system is clear and powerful enough. It has an aux-in which means I've been able to fit a cheap but good quality bluetooth.

The Mii, Up! and Citigo only come with one engine - a 1-litre, 3-cylinder - and four different power outputs. Ours is the most common, the 60PS (59bhp in English). It produces 70lb ft of torque and has a 5-speed manual gearbox. The car weighs 929kg and it does 0-60mph in 14.4 seconds.

This is only half the story.

The Mii doesn't feel so slow. The engine sounds buzzy and rorty and is eager to rev. It has real character - a rarity in this day and age - and pulls nicely until 5,000rpm when it starts to run out of puff. The gearbox is light and slick.

Turn a corner and the Mii doesn't provide class leading feedback but it is sharp enough. You get a smidgen of body roll - it may be light but it is relatively tall - but it is fun to hoon around a series of bends.

And you can do all this without using seemingly any fuel. Official combined fuel consumption is 63mpg and it achieves this effortlessly. The needle on ours hardly moves and I've only filled it up once in a month despite almost daily journeys.

Finally the Mii is a practical car. The rear seats are plenty big enough and the boot is much bigger than in the Fiat 500. It also has enough space at the top to put a dog in (which you can't do in a Fiat 500), though the floor is very low. I've had to build a boot floor out of MDF and foam for our dog, which is a few inches higher than that in the car when it arrived. 

The Mii has really surprised me. It is small outside but large inside. It is comfortable but it is buzzy and good to drive. It is simple but sophisticated. I think we bought the right car.

By Matt Hubbard


24 Mar 2019

Driving Around the Cotswolds in Classic British Cars


I recently had the opportunity to drive a handful of classic cars. It was organised by Great Escape Cars as a day for journalists and bloggers and replicated their Cotswolds Highlights Tour.

I arrived at 9.30am at Great Escape's unit in Redditch - right at the south end of the Midlands and almost touching the Cotswolds. They're located down a road full of industrial units. You drive past the usual light industrial stuff...and then you see it.

Where most units' car parks are full of Transits and pickups and Corsa vans Great Escapes' is full of cars from the 80s, 70s and even 60s. This is automotive heaven.

If you book a tour with Great escapes you'll likely meet Graham Eason. I've known him for a few years as we hired an E-Type from him for my 40th (an eternity ago. And a jolly 24 hours we had.)

After we had introduced ourselves to each other and grabbed a drink Graham explained their recent change in philosophy. The business used to hire a classic car out for a day or so but now they've realised that what most customers want is a taster of each car. An hour or so in the car of their dreams.

This might sound odd but, trust me, it isn't. When we drove the E-Type it was awesome for the first couple of hours. And then it rained so we had to put the hood up. And that wasn't entirely draft-proof, which old cars aren't. And it was cold, and steamed up a bit. And after a while the whole experience started to become slightly less awesome because classic cars are also old cars and old cars don't have the dynamics of modern cars.

Anyway, back to the present. Graham promised us we'd enjoy this format. We would drive five cars over the course of a day. If you're a paying customer you get to choose which cars but our cars were chosen for us. A few people took the trouble to check out the current fleet (it does change) and put requests in.

You share a car with someone. You can swap around as much as you want but stay with your partner over the course of the day. Happily an old friend had suggested we partner up.

Our first car was a Jaguar XJS V6 in red. Knowing we'd be in another XJS later in the day my friend did all the driving for the for first leg. It was an 80s Jag and as such was clad in leather and wood (none of your modern veneer either but actual chunks of wood) and was smooth and refined as you'd expect. What I had totally forgotten about old cars is quite how small the interiors are.  The cabin was snug and everything much closer than you'd get in a modern car. There was also no storage space.  Like, none. I had a bottle of water which I had to put in the footwell and everything else went on the back seat. Each stage is around 45 minutes and 20 miles and I thoroughly enjoyed navigating using the Great Escapes amazingly comprehensive instructions.

After a tea break (literally, at Broadway Tower) it was my turn to drive and the next car was one of the jewels in the Great Escapes' crown.
HMC

The car was the mighty HMC. This is essentially an Austin Healey 3000 MkIII. You would imagine it's from the 1960s or 70s but in reality this car was built in 1999. You'd never know it though as it's a faithful replica of the original car.

You climb in to the cramped cockpit, all tan leather and wood and the steering wheel is in your lap. You move the chair back little but the wheel is still in your lap. The A-pillar is also far closer to your face than you're comfortably used to in modern cars.

Everything is at hand. Behold! There is a small recess in which you can dump your mobile but that's it. Insert the key and fire up the engine and...WOAH!
HMC interior

This HMC isn't fitted with the original Healey 2.6 or 3.0 inline-6. Instead it has a modern(ish) Rover 3.9 V8.

Fabulous.

Blip the throttle. More fabulous. Engage 1st and ease the clutch and feel the grunt. I used to own a Discovery 2 with this exact same engine and it was far quieter and more refined in the Landie. In the HMC you feel it, you hear it and you engage with it.

The gearbox is remarkably good. The throw of the gearbox is short. It's nothing like as smooth as, say a modern Fiesta or Golf, but it is comfortably mechanical.

The HMC is great fun to drive. There is no room for your right arm so it sits atop the door. The sound and grunt of the engine carries you along on a wave of enthusiasm. You laugh with your passenger at the experience of barreling along in the thing. People look at you, you acknowledge them with the briefest nod of the head. You enjoy.

After a decent drive in the HMC we stopped for lunch at the relatively new Caffeine and Machine cafe and gawped at the machinery coming and going in the car park. They've really found a niche and have located their premises perfectly. Engineers from JLR and Aston Martin turned up in amazing machinery and someone turned up in Ferrari Daytona to go get a coffee and watch people gawp at his car.

After lunch we were given the keys to a Mk2 Jaguar. Now this would be a far different experience to the HMC. The Mk2 was manufactured in 1965 and was powered by a 3.8 litre inline-6 engine.
Jaguar Mk2 3.8

The Mk2 was designed in the 1950s and it feels it. You climb in and it feels like you're sitting in a museum. It's relatively spacious but there's still no cubby space to put a phone or drink.

Leather and wood abound. Great planks of wood, hewn from logs and planed, sanded and varnished by craftsmen. The colours are beiges and tans, natural in look, feel and smell.

The driving position is OK. The chair is comfortable but a bit too upright. Adjustment is minimal. The steering wheel is large, wooden and thin. The engine fires up from a Bakelite button in the middle of the dash and is incredibly smooth.

The getaway is anything but smooth. It takes quite some time to get used to but you kangaroo away from the off the first few times you try. On my first ever drive - from a fuel station on a main road - I hadn't shut the door properly so as we lurched down the road the door flew open and I cursed and almost fell out of the car as I grabbed the door to pull it closed. My passenger and I laughed so much it hurt our ribs.

Having driven one before I know the Mk2 has pretty vague steering but this one was quite good. You don't want to drive too fast in it but it surprised.  I enjoyed our spin in the old girl.

Next up was my turn in an XJS. In 1985 I was 14 and that year a film called The Supergrass was released. It was a Comic Strip film with the usual Comic Strip cast and featured Adrian Edmonson and Jennifer Saunders driving down to Cornwall in an XJS. Ever since then I've loved the XJS. It was cool then and it is cool now.
Jaguar XHS V12

Only now it is an old car. 'Our' XJS was a blue 5.3 V12 built in 1988. Back then it was rivalled only by the 911 as the ultimate sports coupe.

They say that you shouldn't meet your heros. In this case I was glad I did.

The XJS' cabin is cramped. Once in the comfortable seat you could touch the windscreen with the palm of your hand (please don't, I have a thing about fingerprints on windows). The pedals and wheel are perfectly placed.

The controls are pretty basic and are formed by big switches and dials. Each side of the cockpit has their own ashtray and the glovebox opens down to form a perfectly flat surface with a mirror which I cannot for the life of me imagine would be useful to a yuppie in 1988...

Fire up the engine and... Is it on? Yes you can feel it. Blip the throttle and you can feel it twist. This is an engine with modesty. It has power and it has torque but it does not feel the need to shout about them. They can be accessed when necessary but it prefers smoothness and effortlessness.

Slip it into drive and and the steering feels oily smooth. The Jaguar virgin might think this is simply too much lightness but it is a feature that dictates the feel of a true Jag right up to the present day.

Slip and slide along at speed and the V12 XJS simply glides with your steering inputs minimal.

The bonnet is as massive as the windscreen is close. All in all this was one hero I was glad to meet. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the XJS.

Our final drive of the day was a Triumph Herald. This was a stand in for the Morris Minor Traveller who's dynamo gave upon the ghost.
Triumph Herald

People who knew about these things did not give us good feedback on the lowly Herald.

With some trepidation we clambered aboard. It was tiny and open. The day was overcast but dry. If it had started raining I'm sure we could have pulled up the hood but I'm not sure how.

We pulled away and were surprised. Sure the tiny Herald is a tiny car with virtually no room for anything in the cabin, but the engine was sprightly. It's the 1400cc from the Spitfire and sounded great, especially as you cruise along on a trailing throttle.

The steering was pretty vague and the gears were...not always easy to engage. Third was a particular challenge. But my co-driver and I found the whole experience charming.

We found that the top speed of the Herald was around 50mph, after which the engine and gearbox felt stressed enough, and the brakes' capacity to come to a safe stop was about as much as was safe.

But stay under 50 and it was a hoot.

We'd set off from Redditch at 10am and at 3.30pm eased back in to the road leading to the unit occupied by Great Escapes.

The day had been fabulous fun. The cars were brilliant to drive and I'd met my hero, the XJS, and had not been disappointed.

Graham had been right to restructure the business towards shorter drives in lots of cars. More than an hour or so in most would be a little too much. Although I could quite happily steer the XJS all day.

By Matt Hubbard



30 Jan 2019

2008 BMW 320d M Sport E90 Video Review

I've owned my BMW 320d M Sport E90 since last June which for me is an eternity! So I thought I'd better get around to filming a video about it.

I've previously written about the car which you can read here and here.

28 Sep 2018

Why I Hated My BMW 320d And Wanted To Sell It - And Then Fell In Love With It Again


I'd bought the 320d. I'd justified it to myself. I was going to keep it. I owned it outright and I didn't want to make any monthly payments. I liked it. So what if it had 200,000 miles on the clock. It ran well and it was comfy and fast and drove well. I'd made my peace with it.

But it had started getting slower. It had started to feel a bit clogged up. All was not well. But I put it out of my mind. I continued using it day to day, short trips and long trips.

Until...

Until a light came on the dashboard, between the speedo and the rev counter. And it was accompanied by a bong. Or maybe a chime. Whatever it was it was not good.

I could have Googled it but I took a photo and put it on Twitter.  The answers came back straight away. All the same.

DPF. Diesel Particulate Filter. Uh? What the hell was a DPF? So I Googled that. It was not good. To cut a long story short a DPF is a filter somewhere in the exhaust system that filters out all the diesel particulates (that as a motorcyclist I can feel in my eyes when following an older bus or taxi in London).

This terrified me. What had I done by buying a diesel? Maybe I should sell the car and buy a petrol. This was a sorry state of affairs.

I went online. Halfords promised to clear out your DPF for a mere £85. Phew! I booked an appointment and a mechanic friend took it there to see if he could learn anything. Sadly not, they said it would take 4 hours so he went for a very long and boring coffee. 4 hours later it was done. £85 poorer but the DPF light had gone out. Job done, scare over.

The next day the DPF light came on again.

I did some more investigation. I consulted many forums where many ill-informed people gave many opinions on what to do, or not. Sell it they said. It's knackered they said. Don't buy a diesel they said. A new one would be £1500 they said.

Not helpful. I did my own investigations. I could buy a new one off eBay for £800. Or alternatively there was a company in Maidenhead who would clear it through for £250. This looked a good and sensible solution, but would it work?

I asked my mechanic friend to call them and book an appointment. We agreed that he would remove the DPF - even though we had no idea where it was or what it looked like - and take it there, get it cleaned and then reinstall it. Great theory but would it work out?

Meantime I had started to hate the car. It let me down and I don't like being let down by mechanical machinery. I like reliability. I talked myself into buying a Mk5 Golf GTI. I spent every waking hour searching Autotrader and eBay.

The BMW started driving terribly. It went into limp mode a few times and would only drive at 25% power.

I discounted 95% of GTIs on sale. Wrong colour, too many miles, not enough history, no cruise control, no heated seats, the dealer sounded like a cowboy (80% of them), too far away, weird stains on seats, not clean enough, mods I didn't like.

But I found one. It was 80 miles from home. The seller sold it really hard. I wanted a discount but he wouldn't give one. I pushed, he pushed back. OK I agreed, I'll come see it and will probably buy it. It looked amazing. So one evening after work my mechanic friend and I travelled 2 hours and met the seller and his car.

Rewind...

Earlier that day my friend had jacked the BMW up and removed the DPF in under 2 hours. It was much easier than expected. He drove it to Maidenhead and it was thoroughly cleaned. It had been blocked almost solid. No amount of recharging by Halfords would have fixed it. Only a deep bath and jet clean with detergents could fix it, and fix it they did. It cost £180 (trade rates) and my friend reinstalled it in an hour.
The Diesel Particulate Filter

The Golf looked fabulous. But a little too shiny. A little too clean. I drove it. It was nice but not as spectacular as I'd been led to believe. The timing belt hadn't been changed for 50,000 miles. This was a concern. I actually preferred the BMW's driving experience. I asked that if I bought it would he consider not cancelling the tax until the next day. He refused.

I thought this was mean spirited but I did agree to buy the car. Some part of my mind was saying no but another part said yes. We agreed the price - the price he had asked - he was so confident he could sell it for the full price. I used my banking app and it didn't work. Hmmm? I phoned my bank. The funds wouldn't clear until the next day.

Snap. That was it. There and then I realised I had done the wrong thing. Fate showed me what I should have seen already. I walked away.

We drove home and only then did I start to realise quite what a difference there was in the BMW. It pulled stronger than it had ever done. The DPF had obviously been quite blocked when I bought it and this had only got worse until it got to the point it started to produce warnings.

By the time we were home I decided I would keep the BMW. I actually loved it and I should never have gone to see the Golf.

But actually I should have. It had been a cathartic experience and I learned lessons. I know I have some kind of syndrome. I call it impulsiveness and I've always had it and it's cost me a fortune in cars I've bought and sold and lost money on. Whatever it is and whatever trendy name might be applied to it matters not.

As soon as something went wrong I wanted rid of the BMW. It took the experience of realising the grass wasn't greener with the Golf to realise I preferred the BMW in the first place and that I shouldn't have gone looking for something else. I should have just fixed it and been done but I couldn't help it. It's for this reason I bought a Yamaha R1 and crashed it and it's for this reason I bought a Porsche 911 and lost £5,000 when the engine blew almost immediately. Sometimes I just cannot help myself - no matter what anyone says.

But, whatever. Lessons learned. I had the BMW and I liked it again.

But there were a few things that needed fixing if I was to keep it. It had satnav via a TomTom but it needed Bluetooth. CDs are too 2000s for me. I need to be able to play music from my phone. I had been using the aux-in cable but saw on the Honest John website a review of Bluetooth units. They recommended the Anker Roav Bluetooth Adapter. They gave it 9/10 so I ordered one.

It arrived the next day and was a plug and play affair. It just needed a USB connection for power and an aux-in port and both are under the armrest. Once plugged in I connected my phone and, honestly, I was amazed. The sound quality is fantastic. I get in, start the engine and press the button on the unit and music plays from my phone. Perfect.
The Bluetooth Adapter

The next job was to fix the headlights. They were pathetic. I had replaced the bulbs with upgraded xenon bulbs but they were still pathetic. The lights only lit a short amount of road ahead of the car. I investigated the mechanical adjustment but it seemed to do nothing. It was obviously broken.

Mechanic friend was booked to take the front end of the car apart so he could remove the headlight units and hopefully bodge a repair. This he did earlier today. It took two hours to get the headlights out. Once off the car we could see the adjuster on both lights had been sheered off the actual light unit at some point in the past so that the light's default setting was to point at the floor.

He fixed them by using Q-Bond adhesive. An amazing engineering bodge that has worked. It took an hour to put it all back together and once it had gone dark I took it for a test drive.

Instantly I knew things were better. The road ahead was lit - a little too much. I was headed for a quiet country lane but had to follow a Citroen Xsara Picasso doing 25mph and weaving around the place. He beeped me a few times as my lights were illuminating the inside of his car.

I stopped and adjusted the lights and drove on. A few cars flashed their lights at me so I stopped and adjusted some more. I repeated this a few times and finally was happy I had a setup that worked and no other drivers flashed their lights at me.
Fixing the headlights

And that was it. I finally had a car that did everything I wanted. The DPF had been fixed and thereafter it was reliable. It had a sound system that worked to my liking and headlights that would light the road ahead.

And so we are. I like my car. It may not have cost much and it had a few faults and they have been fixed. It has been made good and how I like it.

So now I love it and I don't want another car.

I hope it stays this way. I cannot say my impulsive nature won't cause me to want to sell it and buy something newer and faster and perhaps not as good but I will do my best not to do so.

By Matt Hubbard






3 Sep 2018

My First Experience Riding A Motorcycle Off Road


My brother had said he fancied doing a motorcycle off road day. I think at the time I said something like "Yeah OK" and promptly forgot about it whilst he organised the whole thing. He did some research, decided the best one was the Yamaha Off Road Experience in mid-Wales and booked two places on the one day experience. Along the way he booked a hotel and sent me emails with all the information.

And then a few days before the actual event I thought I'd better look at the paperwork. Blimey! I said. It's a four hour drive from home and it starts at 9am - I'm not getting up at 4am. So I booked a really cheap B&B room in a place called Rhayader in deepest darkest mid Wales, just 15 miles south of Llanidloes.

And then I thought I ought to get in to the spirit and decided I'd ride there on my motorbike. You can see in the picture below that my own motorbike, a Triumph Tiger, is actually a kind of off roader. There's no getting round the fact that it is classified as an adventure bike. I bought it because it's comfortable to sit on and ride (I do 7,000 miles a year on it) and because it has a big aluminium box on the back (called a top box) which can swallow enough stuff for a weekend away.

But, unless you include a brief spin across Salisbury Plain, I'd never ridden it, or any other bike, off road.

The fact I had zero experience off road played on my mind as the day approached. I'd heard riding a motorcycle off road is a brutal, intensive and tiring experience. I'd heard tales of constantly falling off the bike and picking it back up, of getting stuck in mud, of being miserable. Would I enjoy it? Would It hate it? I had no idea.

And so after work on the Friday I checked and rechecked the Tiger. It had new tyres and I'd squeezed everything into the top box. I set the satnav for the hotel and left at 6.15pm.

The journey was pretty epic. An hour of M4, cross the Severn crossing, turn right at Newport on to the A449. After half an hour of dual carriageway the road became smaller and more twisty. And the scenery became more spectacular. I rode through the Brecon Becons, I rode up mountains and down mountains, round lakes, and through villages. It was warm and bright and brilliant.

Darkness descended and the road got even more twisty. My eyes were on stalks as I went this way and that following the snake-like contours of the A470 until finally I arrived in Rhayader at 9.45pm.

The room was spacious and comfortable. I necked a couple of beers and slept well.

At 8.30am I set off for Yamaha Experience Centre. It's so isolated the nearest postcode is half a mile away. It's a few miles west of Llanidloes and you have to set the co-ordinates into your satnav. I'd checked it out on Google Earth and found it easily enough and rode into the farmyard where it's based.

The site is literally a working farm. I was directed to park the Tiger in a massive cow shed and met up with my brother and the rest of the people who were on the course. We all gave our various waist and chest and feet sizes and were given boxes of kit, a pair of huge boots and a helmet.

Once fully togged up in off road gear we assembled in the farmyard and inspected the bikes. There was a long line of hardcore trail bikes which were for another group who arrived just after us. Our row of bikes was a little more eclectic.

My brother, rather sensibly, had elected for the slightly less hardcore option and booked the Ténéré Experience. A Yamaha Ténéré is an adventure bike. It's road legal and has knobbly tires and a low revving, torquey engine. There were two 1200cc Ténérés and four 660cc Ténérés . As well as these there was a smaller, lighter WR 250R and a WR 450F.

There were six riders in our group plus two instructors. The lead instructor was Dylan Jones, a vastly experienced Enduro rider.  Dylan spent 30 minutes talking us through the bikes and their specs and capabilities as well as describing the format of the day and what to expect.

So far so good. My initial worries about off road riding were being to dissipate. The whole set up was professional. The bikes were obviously maintained to a high standard and the instructors knew exactly what they were doing.

Most bikes did bear a few battle scars though - and Dylan duly explained how to pick up a bike if one of us were to drop it.

Eventually we all chose bikes - I went for a 660 Ténéré and my brother a 1200 - and we set off in single file behind Dylan.

The roads around the farm are all single lane. The tarmac is old and dusty. The corners are sharp and often steep. We rode at 20 to 30mph getting used to our bikes and loosening up. My Ténéré felt odd compared to my own bike. The seat was a similar height, which is quite tall compared to most bikes, but the bars felt closer and higher. The engine was strong but vibey and it didn't like revving high. It had a sweet spot of between 1500rpm to 4000rpm and outside of that it complained gruffly.

After ten minutes on the road we turned on to a gravel track. We carried on, through the amazing Welsh countryside and into the Hafren Forest. The tracks got a little rougher and it felt less like farmland and more like wilderness.

Dylan parked up at a junction and we all came to a stop. Engines off and he explained that we would be riding in a loop taking in a few very sharp corners, some seriously rough ground and riding around some debris left by loggers.

He told us how to stand on the pegs and what we should be doing with the engine, clutch and bike in general.

We all felt ready for this as he led us slowly around the route. The bike was suited for standing on the pegs but I had to bend a little too much for comfort so I kind of swapped between standing and sitting. We spaced out and took the route at our own pace. It was undoubtedly tough but within a couple of circuits we all mastered the basics. We carried on round this loop a few more times, exploring different techniques and lines.

Eventually we stopped again and water bottles were handed out. We were all grinning and chattering away about our own experiences, what we found hard and easy. There was one particular section I found hard and it wrenched my arms and shoulders a little as I struggled to keep the bike upright. But I had become better at it each time I arrived at it and this simple incremental improvement felt hugely rewarding.

After the debrief and rest we headed off again on a longer ride at higher speeds round dusty, rough trails. We spun the rear wheels a little and controlled tiny slides and felt amazing.

Then we stopped by a place where a tiny track met the trail - disappearing into the forest. Dylan explained it was downhill, possibly slippery and there were a couple of sharp corners. We headed down one by one.

Standing up where possible it was first gear, very gentle braking, concentrate intensely on the track ahead. Where did it go, where precisely did I need to place the wheel, how would my body position affect the bike? All these things and more. I caught the front brake and slid a little on a very sharp downhill hairpin but let go the brake and reapplied it in an instant - this time more progressively and controlled and saved myself from an embarrassing spill.

At the bottom we were elated. Did we want to do it again? Yes! So we did, only better.

And that's how the morning continued. A decent ride at a fair old lick along some dusty trails followed by a tight and tricky section with some gravel and bumps and logs and rocks and hills and puddles and trees and sweat and concentration and smiles.

For lunch we headed to a small country pub in a small country village and ate a hearty meal and pints of coke and lemonade.

And in the afternoon we did it all again, only this time we did more and faster and harder. We swapped bikes and swapped stories. I had a go on the much smaller and lighter WR 250R. Its power band was smaller but it was more fun, and easier to use, on the rougher sections.

My brother rode the 660 Ténéré and the 1200 Ténéré. He reckoned the 1200 was pretty capable on the rough stuff - its weight and electronics and plush suspension taking care of some of the tougher terrain.

I had one crash, a fairly slow motion affair. I was really chuffed with myself. I'd successfully ridden down the steepest, slipperiest hill of the day. Right at the bottom was a sharp right hander and I kept it in too high a gear on the 250. It stalled and the rear wheel locked and I went down. No damage to me or bike.
I rode two bikes on the day

There were a couple of other spills. In the morning we all went into a forest section one by one. One lad stalled at the top of a slope and the rider behind, already committed to the slope had to avert and they ended up side by side like fallen dominoes. No-one was injured and the bikes were fine.

As the afternoon wore on I started to feel weary. We'd been well looked after by the instructors but the toll of riding all day was starting to make itself felt in my limbs.

After half an hour or so of non stop riding round amazing trails I slid to one side as I stalled again. I was fine but exhausted. I took stock and had a chat with the instructor. We were only a mile from the farm, he said, and would be back to base soon.

At around 4.30 we rode into the farmyard. Filthy, sweaty and exhausted, but happy and with a sense of achievement.

I'd mastered the art of off road riding and I'd had a brilliant day. I was glad my brother had decided to do it and organised it. My initial fears hadn't played out at all.
My own Triumph Tiger 800 XCX

The team at the Yamaha Off Road Experience were fabulous. The bikes were prepared well, the level of instruction was tip top and mid-Wales provided a fantastic playground as well as some amazing views.

That night we stayed in a local hotel. We downed a few cold beers, ate another large meal and swapped off road biking tales.

The next day I rode the four hour journey home on my Tiger. A perfect way to finish a wonderful weekend of biking.

By Matt Hubbard


8 Jul 2018

How The Hell Can A 10 Year Old BMW 320d Be Better Than A New VW Golf R?


My recent car history has been quite interesting. For a few years I spent and lost far too much money on a succession of box ticking cars starting with a V6 Audi TT, a Lotus Elise and a Porsche 996 911. They all cost me money, the 911 especially so when the engine exploded in a cloud of steam - literally. 22 litres of coolant being dumped out of a hole in the engine tends to do that.

So then I decided to be sensible and bought a 2007 BMW 330i and it was good and I thoroughly enjoyed driving it. I even drove 857 miles in one day in it.

But then the engine developed an intermittent fault where it would briefly drop power at low revs which was annoying. So I thought I'd buy a new car because they don't go wrong. I reckoned that I could just afford the payments for a new VW Golf R, so I ordered one.

God it was good. 306bhp from a 2-litre turbocharged engine it would do 0-62mph in 4.6 seconds and it did it in a clinical, precise manner. No histrionics just blam blam blam through its ultra-slick 7 speed dual clutch automated manual gearbox. Passengers new to the car would let out a little shriek as I put my foot down and let the car catapult us forward.

And it was great to drive too. 1505kg and four wheel drive, you could chuck it round corners and put your foot down immediately post apex and it would pick up the pace without a hint of understeer, oversteer or wheelspin. I once drove it all round Europe over the course of a week and it was brilliant on the motorway, on the amazing roads to be found in the Alps and Pyrenees and cruising the Riviera.

Driving the Golf R down the Stelvio pass is something I'll always remember.

But then after a year's ownership and 15,000 miles for reasons beyond my control (a tax bill) I had to sell the Golf. I logged into the VW finance website and got a settlement figure immediately. It was a reasonable sum so I cleaned the car thoroughly, wrote an advert and posted it on Autotrader at 10pm one Saturday.

The first call came in at 7.30am Sunday. The second at 8am. I ignored both. I answered the third at 8.15am. He was from Birmingham and wanted to come and buy the car that day. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. He said he would call back. Another call at 8.30am. He was from Cardiff and he wanted to buy the car that day. Oh, I thought.

Long story short I received 20 emails and 30 phone calls that morning. I had several offers and at 2pm two young chaps arrived and smoked half a packet of cigarettes in my driveway whilst they inspected the car. They wouldn't go in the house because they were scared of my incredibly friendly border collie.

One of them test drove the car (after showing me his trader's insurance certificate) absolutely terribly and then turned to me and said, "Most people get scared when I drive them cos I drive fast, but it's OK I'm a great driver." He had been doing 15mph around the village then put his foot down on the dead straight A-road which leads out of the village and went up to 88mph. We didn't travel in time but I did know he was going to buy the car so I kept shtum.

At one point he let go of the wheel and it turned slightly left. He told me the steering was broken and that he would have to knock some money off the price. I explained to him that roads have something called camber so that the rain can drain away...

After all sorts of daft tactics they bought the car from me for the price I had asked and drove it away. I settled the finance with VW and that was that.

16 hours after placing the ad, and expecting it to take several weeks to sell, I was carless.

I hadn't even thought about how I was going to pay for a new car. I had no budget, no finance.  Hmmm.

So I surfed the adverts on eBay and Autotrader. After a lot of research I decided that I wanted either a Mk5 Golf GTI or a BMW 3-series. My budget would be up to £3k but I'd rather pay less.

After scouring dozens of ads for each I realised that I could only really get a scruffy GTI for the money. Some had been modified, some had missing histories, some had dents and dings, some had rust.

There was a real variety of 3-series. There were a lot of E46s in varying specs and conditions, but an E46 feels quite old nowadays. I preferred an E90, and a 330i if possible. But 330s in both i and d form were few and far between, and generally a bit too tatty.

On the Monday morning I saw an ad for an E90 320d for sale from a dealer just two miles from home. It was incredibly cheap for a 2008. It had only two owners, a clean MOT history, full service history and new tyres all round but had racked up an incredible 198,400 miles in its ten years.

I went to see it at lunch and saw it had a few minor car park dings and the wheels had been kerbed and some lacquer on the bonnet was peeling but the interior was great and it was generally solid. The dealer had taken it as a trade in for a much newer 525d and just wanted rid so I made him a daft offer. We negotiated a little but not much and I bought it for £2300.

From one year old Golf R to a leggy 10 year old 320d in just one day. But needs must.

The 320d produces 174bhp and 258lb/ft of torque, does 0-60mph in 7.6 seconds and weighs 1430kg.

It is rear wheel drive as opposed to the Golf's four wheel drive and it is a manual rather than DSG.

I've owned the BMW for two weeks and driven it 300 miles and have been taken aback at how good it is. In some areas it is better than the Golf - a car that is worth ten times as much.

The BMW's driving position is better than the Golf's. You sit low in the BM and stretch your legs out. The E90's seats adjust almost too much. It takes forever to find the right position but when you do it feels perfect. In the Golf you're always comprised by a hatchback's shallower pedal box. In the 320d everything feels exactly where it should be but in the Golf you understand the car is designed to fit anyone of any size which suits most people most of the time but no-one all of the time.

Mind you the tech in the Golf is far superior. It has a touch screen with a satnav and digital radio and bluetooth and trip computers and all sorts of gubbins - half of which you don't use or need. It also has adaptive cruise control. The BMW doesn't have a screen at all so you need to plug in a satnav, and then you realise that a £150 TomTom is far superior to the factory VW satnav and that Google Maps on your phone is far superior to both of those.

The BMW also has the ability to play music from your phone, you just need to plug in an aux cable. And it does have cruise control, just not adaptive. And I love adaptive cruise and will miss it.

The 320's interior is ten years old but it is nicer than the Golf's. The materials used are better and the design and execution is superior, as it would be - the 3-series has always been pitched as a premium car. But it's surprising that even a ten year old car, given a thorough clean, can have a better interior than a current model.

In a straight line the R beats the 320d in every way but one. It is faster in every metric. The BM simply does not have the wow factor. It is merely quick as opposed to insanely fast. But the Golf has a much firmer suspension and a more brittle ride. Where the Golf crashes into speed bumps and hits pot holes with such a bang you are amazed the alloys don't crack the BMW soaks these things up without breaking sweat.

At nearly 200,000 miles you'd imagine the BMW would be soggy but it has new shocks at the rear and feels better than I imagined it would.

On a motorway cruise both cars are equal. Where the Golf has adaptive cruise the BMW uses 50% less fuel. Both have similar levels of noise, both have a comfortable ride and both have enough power  to cruise at decent speed.

But turn off the motorway and drive on good roads and the BMW edges ahead. Where the Golf is fast and precise like an F1 car the BMW makes you feel like Peter Brock, moving and sliding over the mountain section of the Bathurst circuit in his touring car.

The Golf feels digital where the BMW feels analogue. The 3-series' fat steering wheel and low slung seat deliver feedback the Golf can only dream of. You can feel it slip and slide just millimetres and fractions of degrees and adjust accordingly. This arguably creates a greater serotonin rush than the Golf's pure speed.

The Golf's DSG gearbox is an awesome piece of automotive engineering but the BMW's fairly average, short throw, manual gearbox delivers a better and more involved experience.

You can throw both cars around. The Golf feels precise and unflustered. It is like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV - it is unyielding in the way it always delivers and never flinches. Meanwhile the 320d, lighter by almost 100kg, with a better front to rear weight distribution, rear wheel drive and hydraulic power steering uses its advantages to greater effect. The rear feels mobile and adjustable - though I do think it would feel too light when pushed hard on track - and the front goes where you ask and when it does slip you adjust accordingly with tangible reward.

The Golf just delivers, expertly. I enjoyed it without reservation. It was great looking and felt great to be in and to drive. The tech was interesting and mostly useful and the doors made a lovely noise when you shut them.

If you avoid speed bumps, potholes and poorly surfaced roads and want to drive at 15mph around town and 90mph on A-roads then the Golf is easily the better car but for most other conditions the BMW is actually the more involving car to drive.

I loved the Golf but in the BMW I have rediscovered the soul of driving, and I hadn't even realised it had gone.

If I could have another Golf R I would but for now I am not at all unhappy with my old, high mileage, diesel BMW.

By Matt Hubbard