30 Jul 2013

The life of a 'plater'

Mike Trowsdale is a plater* and as such gets to drive many and varied cars at short notice.  Here are his cuttingly incisive, and frequently funny, thoughts on some recent cars. 

Been “plating” a few motors up and down our green and pleasant land over the past couple of weeks and put together a few thoughts between Talk Sport, Local Raydeeyo and aerial removed static…

Gearboxes: truly a story of the good, the bad and the - really - ugly…I have driven at least a dozen different manuals and none of them provided ratio exchanges notably beyond prosaic. Sad but true the favourite was a Zafira and surely just because it was different: high up, rallycross style (imagination required to stick at this job…).

A Focus Ecoboost was typical of the slightly ponderous and notchy cog swappers but still rather nice with the best steering/handling of the “eclectic” bunch sampled. Techno busting motor for sure, but I’m not in the Lord Cropley league of fans. Sounded potent(ish) 4-6000 but that’s not really the point and when in my default “nothing going on here” mode the trip computer was pretty much in the 30’s mpg. Did like the deeply cowled instruments - a little reminiscent of the Mk111 Cortina to this ‘70’s teen.

Sorry – gearboxes: also made the acquaintance of a Qashqai “auto” which must be a CVT. That passed itself off as ok – tho’ struggled on motorway inclines without a resolute right hoof. Maybe best off left with fond memories of Daf…And so on through the mainly morose manuals - and some perfectly good regular autos (Merc) - to the entirely epic Peugeot 3008 “EGC”, so bad I – had to – try it twice. And when I say bad I mean bad, and bad in the right way: terrible. This gearbox would not have been signed off by Dairycrest for fear of being sued for whiplash. I have no axe to grind with Peugeot – and I can only assume it had “Electronic Gear Control” as they do perfectly good autos – but it really is so bad you have to try it yourself. Or rather don’t, unless you are in a heavily padded enclosure and have enjoyed a bottle of Ricard. Which is the only way this could have been “approved” in the first place.

And so from chalk to cheese. Or maybe Dairylea to Foie gras. Which, to be fair, is very harsh on Dairylea. From the (2nd) 3008 I jumped straight into a Cayman S.  Postcode EC4 (central London) I guessed probably not a regular manual and as a former representative of Stuttgart’s finest I spotted what I assumed to be a “Tiptronic” lever. Oh dear. For the the unanointed, Tiptronic is just a regular - very good - slushmatic auto (with buttons for F1 afficionados…). Further study revealed the legend “PDK” - auto double clutch manual - at the base of the rather tastefully bling lever. Town driving was so near “Tip” smooth I would guess 80% of customers wouldn’t notice the difference.

The next morning I headed up to Nottingham and 70mph was just over 2000rpm in 7th (!). Kickdown was instant and the real thrill was the proper mechanical connection that nudged you in the back to tell you that the gear was locked in - and the resultant truly stellar acceleration. I was a Porsche sales exec 10 years ago and drove dozens of Boxster S’s but this was in a different league – 10 seconds of 50 to heaven and back and the love very much rekindled. In the words of one F Bueller: “Porsche; accept no substitute”.

Worst fuel gauge “distance to empty”: Renault Scenic 35-0 within 2 miles in central Birmingham. Trousers very concerned...

Merc B160 – wholly unremarkable. Five speed manual petrol with a “commanding” driving position that allows no view of the bonnet Qashqai/Freelander style and thus removes the perceived “safety” element beloved of school run mums. Reminded me of Derek Bell and his aside about travelling at 247mph in a 917 down the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans with his toes just 2 inches inside the nose of the car. Sort of.

Aygo – same as 107 right? Can’t agree with Rob at DriverVibe with the one I drove (3 years old to be fair). Looking forward to the car but found it small…and not much else. Knew it wouldn’t be quick but even with the benchmark of my first car - 38bhp Mini 1000 – it seemed to struggle. No “chuckability” thrills, a notchy and obstructive gearbox, lacklustre steering and overall, just small. Shame.

A1 TDi a bit of an eye opener. In “plater” mode - no research - so had clocked small car + TDi and thought probably not indecently fast. Anyway got stuck behind a Polo doing 40 in a 60, then 28 in a 30. Regular route so recognised the 50mph opportunity about to present itself and hung back… I timed it perfectly - for once - and put pedal to metal and crikey! 30-70 (apologies) in 3rd in a blink and matey boy in TT 225 behind floundering. I am not often taken aback, but in my natural Home Counties style – apologies for not being more cool – I did think “not bad”. So liking it (A1) and it (1.6 TDi) achieves the Holy Grail of 99g/km. On the downside the electric mirror control is in a jolly annoying position and both Mrs andI compared the ride to an old flame - the MGF Trophy. Quite firm…

Doing 1000 miles a week you can’t help but notice that Audi, BMW and Mercedes are doing a great job but maybe, just maybe also pushing the envelope of exclusive/prestige too far - when do “strong residuals” collide with the runaway train of yet more record sales? Talking of which I noted with interest that wannabe Volvo had a few hundred “ex management” low mileage “2013” spec. cars going thro’ a certain well known south eastern auction site. A slightly depressing take on the reality of the UK car market - predetermined marketing of probable oversupply (registrations = market share) that will hit your new car value hard. Hey ho I’m just a driver.

*Plater - self employed guys armed with "trade plates" that enable them to collect and deliver cars from one place of business to another to grease the wheels of the UK motor trade. Open to all ages, typically from 23-70 the job specification requires a full UK licence (no more than 6 points), a reasonable command of the Queen's English spoken and written, the ability to loosely hang a tie round your neck and a clean - self funded - CRB if you manage to last two months.