10 Jul 2020

Automotive Simplicity

I've always valued simplicity in a car. Give me just what I need and no more. More equals weight and weight is bad. You have to put more effort into going forwards with more weight. You have to build bigger brakes and suffer stiffer suspension with more weight. This adds more expense, more complexity and yet more weight.

Yet complexity for the sake of complexity seems to be the way we are heading. As well as valuing simplicity I also value space, comfort and speed. I like a car to carry me emotionally as well as physically. I once drove a Toyota Yaris to Sussex and arrived at my destination brain dead. It was a hollow experience.

Balancing all these values brought me to buying a Mk7 Golf GTI. I've owned it a year and love its combination of speed, comfort and relative light weight. At 1400kg it's not too porky.

However I have recently discovered it is complex. Far too complex. We had packed the Golf for a long needed week in Cornwall. 250 miles and four hours. It would be a breeze. Adaptive cruise control set to 79 and a couple of editions of the Talking Sopranos podcast and we'd be in Perranporth in the blink of an eye.

Only it didn't turn out that way. Within half a mile of leaving home the coolant warning light came on. I got out, observed the trail of fluid we'd left behind and turned back for home.  I opened the bonnet and found that whatever fluid I put in the header tank was escaping at speed through an unspecified location amidst a mess of wires, pipes and something called camshaft adjustment actuators at the back of the engine. We unpacked everything from the Golf and repacked it in my son's Seat Mii - a sibling to the VW Up! - and set off for Cornwall.

I had previously ignored the Mii for anything other than local journeys. It is a fabulous little car. Small outside, spacious inside, comfortable and simple. The driver's seat has far less support than the Golf's, there is no cruise control, no arm rests, no cubby spaces for storage.

Yet the seat was comfortable, there was enough space, we crammed everything in the Mii that had been in the Golf. It cruised along at motorway speeds with nary a complaint from any occupant. My phone provided satnav and the Talking Sopranos podcasts through the car's stereo. It has electric windows, which I consider an essential, and it has heating and A/C, also an essential. What it lacks is cruise control. That's the only thing I really missed.

Despite only having a 1 litre engine with 60 bhp the Mii delivered us to Cornwall in a relaxed and happy state. The Golf would not have been any faster over the entire journey.

And when in Cornwall the Mii continued to delight. Its low weight means the suspension is soft and this was perfect for trekking round awfully paved roads and gravel tracks to find beach car parks. The car's small dimensions, neutral steering and light clutch made Cornish lanes easy to navigate and the tiny brakes were plenty enough to stop us quickly when faced with oncoming SUVs at mighty speed around blind Cornish bends.

And finally when we drove home I was quite tired after three hours driving so we pulled into Leigh Delamere services and my son was able to drive the rest of the way home. He isn't insured on the Golf because it would cost about a million pounds.

When we arrived home my mechanic friend came round and showed me his investigations into the Golf's coolant loss. It could be anything from a blown head gasket to a simple pipe failing. But because it is in a location surrounded by technological gubbins he would rather a specialist look at it. So I've booked a mobile Volkswagen specialist to come and investigate. The bill will potentially be ruinous.

I have learned over the course of the past week that despite the Mii producing around 170bhp less than the Golf it is far more its equal than I had imagined. You really have to drive the little car. You use the gears to overcome the lack of power and you hustle it round corners to keep the speed up. It is a fun car to drive and it engages you more than many a faster, more expensive, more luxurious, heavier and more complex car.

The Golf is still a better all round car than the Mii but not by the margin I expected. Once the Golf is fixed I am seriously considering swapping it in for a simpler, lighter machine. But it must have cruise control and electric windows.

By Matt Hubbard