Green car green trees

Opinion: Don’t demonise diesel – or the planet will pay the price

Green car green treesWho’s to blame for this week’s news that new car CO2 emissions have risen for the first time in history? The government. And us, for being misled by these confused, ill-informed politicians.

It’s all because we’ve stopped buying diesels. The Volkswagen emissions scandal kicked off the downturn in 2015 and the fuel hasn’t recovered since. Last year, sales were down more than 17 percent in the UK.

But diesels are dirty, right? They’re choking our cities and killing our kids? Well, not quite. Old diesels certainly are. But new ones? These so-called Euro 6 diesels are almost as clean as petrol cars, something proven time and again by independent testing (the same sort that exposed VW).

Like so many things, the government doesn’t get this. So it’s penalising all diesels as if they were the same. Ironically, this deters people from buying new cars, keeping the dirty diesels on the road for longer. So they’re continuing to choke and kill us.

Diesels also, as a rule of thumb, emit 15-20 percent less CO2 than a comparable petrol engine. There’s no fudging this, and the fuel economy boost you get from a diesel proves it. If people buy fewer diesels, new car CO2 emissions go up. Today’s data proves it.

Car buyers have forgotten about CO2. The government has forgotten about CO2, and all the commitments it’s signed up for to reduce it. And all because everyone’s getting mixed up about old diesels and new ones.

The cost – to the planet, to car manufacturers, to our government, to ourselves – will emerge in time. When it does, who will blame who?

Opinion: Not a fan of Top Gear? Turn it off

 

Did you catch the first episode of the new series of Top Gear last night? What did you think of it?

OK, now we’ve got that out of the way, let me tell you what I think. Only I’m not going to because – sorry, Mr Editor – I don’t think it matters what I think. My brief was to write an opinion piece on the series 25 curtain-raiser, but really, what’s the point?

Sure, the BBC will be monitoring the ratings, hoping to improve on the 1.9 million or so who tuned in to watch the final episode of series 24, which was down from 2.8 million for the season premiere.

To provide some context, 14 million watched an episode of Blue Planet II in October 2017, while 10 million tuned in to watch some fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Heck, even the first episode of the ill-fated Chris Evans series managed a peak of 4.7 million.

Unlike just about every other Top Gear preview or review over the past couple of years, I’ve managed to get this far without mentioning the C word. That’s ‘Clarkson’, in case you were wondering.

Drawing comparisons with the Clarkson era of Top Gear – not to mention The Grand Tour – is inevitable, but can’t we just move on and embrace the variety? The fact is, we’ve never had it so good.

I’ve been a fan of Top Gear since the days of Tony Mason’s hat, Chris Goffey’s beard, Jezza’s afro and Michelle Newman’s Alice band. Back then, Top Gear was your only real hope of anything motoring-related on TV, unless something made the news, such as yet another strike at Austin Rover or Lancia’s rust scandal.

Today, aside from the two flagship motoring shows, there’s a seemingly infinite number of channels to choose from, some of which offer car-based entertainment. Wheeler Dealers and Car SOS are two of the best, but there are others of varying degrees of quality.

Then there’s the increasing number of YouTube channels, which allow you to select from a menu to suit just about every taste. From the brilliantly eccentric HubNut to Jonny Smith’s relaunched and excellent Carpervert, you’ll find enough content to last a lifetime of lunchtimes.

If you didn’t enjoy Top Gear, that’s fine. But can we put an end to the Blur/Oasis-like TG/TGT comparisons? I’m yet to stumble across a television without an ‘off’ button, so why don’t you just switch off your television set and go out and do something less boring instead?

For what it’s worth, I enjoyed the first episode, but I’ll spare you the root and branch examination of the complete 60 minutes. Besides, I couldn’t tell you anything about the celebrity bit as I was too busy making a cuppa.

I’ll still find more interest in a Chris Goffey review of an Escort XR3 or watching Clarkson’s trying to squeeze his hair beneath the roofline of a Porsche 968, but that’s just me. The vast majority of TV shows hold no interest, but I won’t waste your time or mine telling you how much I don’t enjoy them. 

Now if you don’t mind, I’m about to spend the next 50 minutes listening to the best album of the 1990s – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?

Opinions, eh? Don’t you just love ’em?

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World Car Awards 2018 testing in LA

World Car Awards 2018: we drive the contenders in LA

World Car Awards 2018 testing in LAThe longlist for the 2018 World Car Awards was revealed back in September at the Frankfurt Auto Show. Since then, the 82 jurors, including yours truly, have been assessing as many of the cars as possible, in readiness for the first round of voting in January 2018.

To be eligible, cars need to be sold in at least two regions globally – that’s what makes them truly World Cars. To ensure jurors have has much access as possible, the awards organisers annually host a big test day during the LA Auto Show: my challenge this year was once again to drive as many cars as I could in a day.

World Car Awards 2018 testing in LA

With the morning mist still lingering, I was straight into a car sadly not sold in Europe – the Toyota Camry. Even those who were around when it was sold here may well have forgotten it: back in the day, the Camry was the automotive equivalent of a bar of soap.

Not any more. It looks dramatic, with bold lines and sharp creases; the ‘floating’ black roofline contrasts with the white paint, the grille is gigantic and there’s a lip spoiler and diffuser combo at the rear more akin to a BMW M5 than a Toyota.

And that’s even before you step in and are overwhelmed by the red. A Toyota saloon with red leather sports seats? Boy, it woke me up. Against expectations, the drive didn’t let the side down either; the setup was sporty, ride firm, responses agile. Only a beautifully smooth V6 engine was more in line with expectations, Lexus-like in its serenity.

World Car Awards 2018 testing in LA

Pity the 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine in the car I drove next, the Mazda CX-5, wasn’t so quiet. This is like having an MX-5 engine in a family SUV, demanding vocal revs to get the best out of a chassis that’s also as MX-5-like as a family SUV can get away with. Like many modern Mazdas, it feels upscale and well-engineered, but I’d like to drive it in Europe, with a diesel engine, before casting judgement.

World Car Awards 2018 testing in LA

The new Nissan Leaf had more immediate appeal. How could it not, thanks to styling so much more appealing than the oddball original? The interior is leagues ahead too, and Nissan’s made it even more refined with luxury car ride refinement and less whine from the electric motor.

It’s appreciably quicker, the battery didn’t seem to drain in an eyeblink and, when I stumbled across a parked-up predecessor en route, it was clear how far Nissan’s jumped in a generation. The short drive wasn’t enough to reveal how much of a hindrance the toweringly high seats and tight rear legroom are, but was enough to suggest the world’s best-selling EV is certainly a World Car Awards contender.

World Car Awards 2018 testing in LA

Sitting next to the Leaf was my next ride, Kia’s Stinger GT. It looked low, wide, curvaceous, like a bona fide coupe; I opened the door and, compared to the Leaf, felt like I was falling to the ground, so low were the firm, sporty chairs. Interior tactility was premium, not volume, and it was an exciting place to be.

Given all this, the V6 turbo didn’t quite have the AMG-like bark I expected, but my, how well this car drives. Like a properly sorted BMW, with a communicative chassis, tight steering and, I was delighted to find, just enough of a suggestion of power-on drift out of corners to reveal the rear-drive layout and spice things up. Driving up the winding Pasadena mountain roads, it was fantastic: only on the way back down, when I switched from sport mode to comfort, did it feel soggier and less gelling. I quickly turned it back on and started making those big Brembo brakes earn their keep.

World Car Awards 2018 testing in LA

This was all going well. And then I got into the Alfa Romeo Stelvio SUV. A 280hp 2.0-litre turbo petrol, the engine whined as I drove out the car park (I was the first juror to drive it; things improved once it was warm). Fast steering made it feel nervy; it pitched and lurched, despite a stiff ride. It was too noisy for a premium SUV, with noise from too many sources.

But then, a bit like as with a Ferrari, I got used to the geared-up steering, adopting minimal inputs and being rewarded with tight, well-balanced handling. It hung on well, bolstered seats hugged me well, and so many people looked at its svelte styling when back on the freeway. Enough to overlook a stark lack of premium finish and attention to detail inside, the poor infotainment system and overall bias perhaps just a bit too much to the sporting side for a premium SUV? We shall see.

World Car Awards 2018 testing in LA

The Jeep Compass was easier to dismiss. It looks good, the interior quality is surprisingly passable and, I guess, it drives OK… but what a gutless, noisy engine it has, and how its nine-speed automatic hunts, slurs and generally feels like it’s on the brink of wearing out even though it’s brand new. When you know how good cars such as the Seat Ateca are, the Compass struggles. 

The day was drawing in. Time for just two more drives. First, the Range Rover Velar. The World Car Awards looks at cars from a global perspective; they must perform as well in, say, North America as they do in the West Midlands. The Velar certainly did. I love its modernist design and getting in to its strikingly luxurious interior was like getting home (well, if I were the rich chief of an internet start-up with the pad to reflect my prowess).

Running on 22-inch wheels, it had a stiff in-town edge, becoming more cushioned once the air suspension was worked. Handling was positive and planted, the supercharged V6 engine was eager and the eight-speed automatic gearbox was as utterly perfect as the Jeep’s auto was not. The Velar felt so well honed in so many ways, all enjoyed from that landmark interior. It’s a good ‘un.

World Car Awards 2018 testing in LA

But so too is the magnificent BMW 5 Series, my final drive of the day. I was testing the 530e plug-in hybrid, focusing on the World Green Car category; because it was late, the battery was flat and a reset trip computer took an age to even crawl out of the teens. This is the flaw of the PHEV, I mused – was this a superb car critically let down by its green drivetrain, thus scuppering its chances in the World Green Car category?

So I concentrated on the rest of it. The luxurious interior, cosseting seats, top-notch infotainment system and peerless chassis that, uniquely for the day, rode as well as it handled. What a fiendishly, outstandingly good car the latest 5 is.

World Car Awards 2018 testing in LA

Then I clocked that, despite being flat, it was still running a surprising way during town driving on electric. Enhancing further the sophistication and silence. If only all plug-in hybrids were this sophisticated: it was delivering zero emissions where you need it, in town, justifying the technical complexity beneath. A cleverly green car: enough to take on that promising new Nissan Leaf though? There was a lot to chew on as I parked up for the final time. 

There we have it. Eight cars, hundreds of miles, a bulging notepad to transfer onto a fast-growing spreadsheet of observations and scores. There are now a few more drives before the first round of judging in January; the LA sessions confirmed once again just how tricky it’s going to be. The world is full of great new cars in 2018. Let’s start narrowing things down to find the best of all.

In pictures: testing World Car Awards 2018 contenders in LA

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Exhaust emissions

Opinion – Checking your exhaust emissions: mission impossible?

Exhaust emissionsI don’t know about you, but to me 2018 feels like it’s going to be a watershed year when it comes to public opinion on toxic air. In the UK, as in other parts of Europe, there is now massive pressure to bring air quality in built-up areas back to acceptable, safe and legal limits. Residents are acutely aware of the effects of vehicle emissions, thousands of column inches have been written on the topic and politicians are having to respond (not least following a High Court case that, naturally, got the attention of mainstream media). 

The result? While there’s still precious little concrete detail for the average motorist to get their head around, a series of Clean Air Zones in towns and cities across the UK are now very likely (and, depending where you live, an absolute certainty).

How we’re all going to be affected by these zones no-one (yet) knows. There are some compelling arguments that the oldest, dirtiest vehicles should be taken off the road first. But in those areas where the air is filthiest, there’s a very real prospect private drivers might face charges or restrictions when Clean Air Zones are introduced. Whether they are affected will depend on the Euro emissions standard of the vehicle they’re driving.

So here’s one of the first snags, and it’s a big one. Pretty much nobody I’ve spoken to outside the world of motoring has any idea what the Euro 4, 5, 6 standards are all about, let alone which category their car falls into. And that’s understandable – the Euro system has been quietly working away in the background for around for 25 years, ensuring that each time we upgrade our car we’re probably getting behind the wheel of something a little cleaner. How efficiently we all drive, of course, is another thing entirely…

But things are changing, and fast. Within months, thousands if not millions of drivers will start questioning which Euro standard their car meets to see if they’re affected by Clean Air Zones. And right now it is difficult to reliably check this. The current advice – including from the UK government – remains to speak to your vehicle’s manufacturer. But this isn’t good enough. It took five days for a manufacturer I spoke to to confirm that a 2015 used car I thought was going to be Euro 6 compliant was actually just Euro 5. You don’t find it on most V5C forms and it’s not routinely captured by any government department.

‘Dieselgate’

The Euro system isn’t perfect by any means. Some new cars still emit greater levels of harmful pollutants than they should, as sharply brought into focus by ‘dieselgate’. At the same time, some cars appear to perform much better than you might expect them to (mentioning no names here, but check the EQUA Index).  However, it’s the system we have, and it looks like the only means councils will use – at least to begin with – to decide who is impacted by Clean Air Zones. So let’s at least make sure everyone knows what it is.

The road to clean air doesn’t start and stop with the oldest polluters, though: we’ve all got a responsibility here. Three days a week I take my two small boys to nursery and school along some central Bristol streets that are no doubt plagued by polluted air at peak times (and interestingly, pretty quiet the rest of the time). Sadly, it’s a journey I make by car given the distinct lack of other transport options and I am all too aware that, sitting in a 2011 diesel saloon. I’m a contributor to the problem – regardless of how light my right foot is when driving. It really doesn’t sit well with me when I see mums and dads with buggies and tiny babies on the same level as most car exhausts.

I want to be able to make the right choices, I really do: for the people that live close to where I drive, for my kids, for the planet and, yes, for my wallet. I’m sure I’m not alone. As vehicle emissions is such a complicated topic for anyone to get their head around, the focus for manufacturers and government should be to make it simple for all of us. We have a long way to go, but making the all-important Euro category of our current (and future) vehicle clear would surely be a good start. Is that really too much to ask?

Traffic police

Opinion: crash scene tweets reveal a dark insight into modern policing

Traffic police

You’re a traffic officer dealing with the nasty job of sweeping up a crash when a member of the public approaches and asks – what you perceive to be – a stupid question. It takes a great deal of restraint not to tell said member of the public to, let’s be frank, do one.

But you’re a police officer. You smile, answer their query and get on with doing your job – no matter how challenging that job is.

Or that’s how it should be. But today, there’s the temptation of using social media to vent your frustrations. Doing so would be extremely unprofessional, right? Especially using an official police Twitter account do to so.

Oh. You might think that @roadpoliceBCH (the account of the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire Road Policing Unit) makes a good point here. Call me old fashioned, though – I think it’s part of a police officer’s job to help the public when there’s a road closure. The circumstances around the tweet aren’t clear, and if the police officer was desperately trying to deal with life or death injuries, I fully understand their frustration. I would still politely suggest that it’s unprofessional to vent their annoyance on Twitter.

I raised my concerns and whoever is behind the Twitter account took the time to respond back.

Fine. That clarifies the situation. But… and feel free to call me a snowflake: am I right to expect conversations with my local traffic policing unit to be a little less, well, sarcastic?

This isn’t the only occasion when I’ve seen things posted by the police that I don’t think have a place on Twitter. I posted an opinion piece last year saying that I didn’t want to see pictures of car crashes on Twitter. Long story short: I know someone who was seriously injured in a crash. Before the police could notify the family, they’d seen pictures of the incident on Twitter. These weren’t posted by rubbernecking members of the public, either. They were posted on official police Twitter accounts and picked up by the local newspaper. They thought it’d be OK because the number plate of my mate’s distinctive yellow car had been blurred out.

And then there’s tweets like this, posted by Greater Manchester Police’s traffic division.

Would they have posted a similar picture had the incident involved a Fiat Punto? Probably not. Should they be encouraging ‘trial by Twitter’? I don’t think so. Should they be doing their best to reduce the congestion by stopping the rubbernecking that’s clearly happening in the background? Yes.

Incidentally, it later emerged that the Ferrari driver tested positive for cannabis – but not until after the sarcastic tweet suggesting the driver was speeding. I’d rather the police didn’t publicly jump to conclusions before being in possession of all the facts.

None of us get it right all of the time, and I can’t stress enough that I’m very appreciative of the job that the police do. But Twitter shows an ugly insight into a police service that should be setting an example – and that includes thinking twice before tweeting live from crash scenes.

>NEXT: We drive a Volvo V90 police car

Illegal mobile phone use while driving

Opinion: It’s time we take responsibility for using phones at the wheel

Illegal mobile phone use while drivingIt’s been described as a problem of epidemic proportions. But sadly for most of us, there’s no single shot in the arm that can be administered to drivers convinced they can safely use a handheld smartphone while they’re driving a one-and-a-half tonnes of metal and plastic on Britain’s busy roads.

The stats make for grim reading. The latest UK Government figures show a year-on-year increase in crashes in the UK where a mobile phone was a known cause. And that’s just those instances where the police were sure a phone was a major factor – which means it almost certainly underestimates the problem. Yes, there are plenty of other threats on the road, from speeding drivers to those who drink and drive. But few are as prevalent as the menace of the handheld smartphone – at least if my daily commute is anything to go by.

There’s surely no excuse for it, yet at the same time I think many drivers think there really is. Here’s why.

Do you remember the first time you got behind the wheel of a car? The nervous rush of energy as the instructor took you out? The intense concentration? The dry throat at the end of the lesson (that might just have been me)?

As the months went on, you built your confidence until you were ready to take your test. By this point you were no longer thinking consciously about when to step on each pedal, or how to physically change gear. The whole process had, miraculously, become automatic. And it is the intuitiveness of the whole experience that is surely one of the great pleasures of driving.

The problem is that a lot of drivers see that automation as a pass to do other stuff. The practice of driving becomes the easy bit – and creates a false sense that we have some mental space to fill with thinking about and doing other things.

Don’t get me wrong – the car can be a distracting place at the best of times. Even without my phone demanding my attention (thank you Apple for Do Not Disturb While Driving in iOS 11, and Waze for letting my loved ones know if I’ll be late because of traffic), a screaming child in the back of the car or a heated conversation with my partner can be enough to move anyone’s mind from driving.

However, the opportunities a phone gives you for distraction takes things to a whole new level. I’d argue that in 2018 there can be few greater temptations than reaching for your phone when it rings, pings or buzzes, especially if you’re crawling in traffic.

I have a genuine worry that things are getting worse. Even though the penalties in the UK for using a handheld phone at the wheel recently got tougher, I’m pretty sure I see more people doing it now – not less. And I reckon most of them are well aware of what they’re doing, well aware of what might happen while they’re preoccupied on the phone, but are still happy to do it because they consider it nothing more than a minor misdemeanour.

At the same time, the availability of potentially distracting tech in our cars is increasing. Most modern vehicles come with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto – so suddenly technology that we’re normally just using on a phone has made its way into the car. But with this comes more temptation for us to do something other than driving – and right now, that’s a bad thing because regardless of how much current tech you have fitted, it’s still you driving a car, not the car driving you.

What we really can’t do is wait until a time when the car is fully in charge, finally giving us the chance to kick back and watch Netflix or spend our commutes checking our phones. And that’s presuming the day when our roads are solely occupied by fully autonomous cars actually arrives – some carmakers remain sceptical about the whole idea. We’re each going to have completed many thousands of journeys before we get there, if we ever get there. So we need to take (urgent) action on unnecessary distractions now.

So, what’s the answer? Call me gloomy, but I’m not certain there is one. Shock tactics have a big part to play – but I can’t see serious money ever being spent on billboards across the country to emphasise the potentially tragic consequences of someone causing a crash because they glanced at their phone. Finger wagging by the authorities is also unlikely to convert those intent on flouting the law.

For me, the best chance is for all of us to be willing to have a conversation about the issue. It’s asking a lot to say everyone who has ever used a phone at the wheel should see a therapist, but we do need to give ourselves the space and time to really think about why we believe we can still be in control of our cars when our eyes – and our minds – are so clearly on something else. I don’t think it’s necessarily a technology problem.

The best hope of stemming a further, unnecessary increase in mobile phone-related crashes, then, is for each of us to take much more individual responsibility. Because, when all is said and done, picking up a phone while we’re in the car is still a choice we make, no matter how ‘urgent’ that feeling to talk or text is. 

Car tax disc

The £100 million question: why is car tax evasion rocketing?

Car tax discThe government told us eliminating the paper tax disc would save the country £10 million a year: hurrah! What a pity latest stats from the Department for Transport reveal a potential revenue loss of £107 million per year caused by tax evasion. Drat!

That £107 million figure is easily the greatest amount lost to tax evasion in at least a decade.

The scale of the problem is enormous: in 2013, 0.6 percent of vehicles on British roads were observed to have evaded paying Vehicle Excise Duty (VED). That grew to 1.4 percent in 2015. In 2017, that figure’s grown further, to 1.8 percent. Which is equal to around 750,000 vehicles.

Even the DfT seems surprised by the increase: It observes “the number of vehicles evading is significantly higher in comparison to 2015”. Compared to 2013, it fails to add, it’s even more significantly higher.

A potential loss of £0.1 billion a year because of 750,000 people not paying their road tax is a serious issue in anyone’s book. Now, the DfT does add that it can’t say for sure whether £107 million is the actual loss, because some of that revenue may have been recovered through DVLA enforcement, or through guilty owners paying up later.

But it’s still not small change. And it’s still tripled since the paperless car tax system was introduced in October 2014. Question is, why are the rates rocketing? The paperless system is undoubtedly the cause, but what aspect of the system is causing so many tens of millions to be lost?

Paperless car tax evasion: the causes

Forgetfulness

Fifty-two percent of the unlicensed vehicles caught had been without road tax (VED) for less than two months. The next highest figure is two-to-four months, way back on less than 20 percent.

This indicates that the power of the visual reminder on a car windscreen was significant – probably much more so than DfT officials expected. Eventually, people will be alerted that they’re driving around in an untaxed car – perhaps at MOT or car insurance renewal time – but it seems the initial forgetfulness factor is high.

Reminder letters are sent out when VED tax is due, but it seems these aren’t enough to chivvy people into sorting their car tax promptly. Maybe they’re sent out too early, duly filed and themselves forgotten about…

Not understanding the change of owner rules

Under the new rules, car tax is not transferred to the new owner when a car is sold. The original owner instead receives a refund, meaning the car automatically becomes untaxed when the DVLA receives the paperwork.

Some motorists don’t realise this – 15 percent of the 750,000 vehicles caught were spotted after a licence refund had been issued, and no subsequent licence had been taken out. However, this pales compared to the 70 percent of cars simply driving around after the tax had expired – and the fact this 15 percent figure is almost half what it was in 2015 suggests motorists are becoming familiar with the new system. It’s not the root cause of why there are now so many untaxed cars on our roads.

Direct Debit foibles

Motorists can now pay for road tax via Direct Debit: 13 million were taken out in 2016/17. Could tech problems with the system be causing evasion rates to go up? It seems not: the DVLA says it “actively pursues” any lapsed payments – and the fact that so many millions of organised people are signing up to have their VED paid automatically should theoretically mean the evasion rate ought to stabilise or even go down, rather than skyrocket…

Budget-crunched motorists

Fifty-one percent of unlicensed cars caught were aged 10 years or more. In contrast, 24 percent of licenced vehicles were aged 10 years or more. Maybe older, cheaper cars are being driven by those with less disposable income? And maybe cash-stricken motorists are thus being unavoidably forced into taking a chance that they won’t be caught?

Car tax is not cheap: the cost for a vehicle built between 2001 and 2017, emitting 226g/km CO2 or more, is over £500. Given the real terms fall in wages, that’s an enormous sum for those just about managing.

Oh, and what about motorcycles?

If you think tax evasion is bad for cars, just look at bikes: 5.8 percent of motorcycles are reckoned to be evading VED. Admittedly, says the DfT, it’s harder to collect tax for bikes than it is for other vehicles, but it’s still a fair indication of a higher evasion rate for motorcycles.

Eleven percent of all unlicensed vehicles had been so for more than a year. Look to motorcycles, and that figures rockets to 38 percent…

In a sense, it’s perhaps inevitable: if the policing system for VED evasion partly relies on ANPR, the fact bikes have half the number of registration plates as cars means they are, in theory, half as likely to be caught by police cameras.

So what’s the answer?

The treasury will be keen to solve this dilemma, particularly as the amount lost due to licence evasion has gone up so dramatically. The answer, it seems, is simply a better reminder system.

Motoring Research has one idea that might work: a brightly-coloured piece of paper on the windscreen telling everyone who looked at it if the vehicle was licenced or not, instantly, at a glance. Even if the car’s owner forgot, their partner, or kids, or neighbours might spot it. It would be very obvious indeed if you’d evaded road tax – and who wants the embarrassment of displaying to the world that they’re a tax-dodger?

We estimate it could only cost £10 million a year to enact, a mere fraction of the amounts being lost to road tax evasion. It’s such a strong idea, we’ll certainly be sending it on to the DfT. We’ll let you know how we get on.

>NEXT: The smart motorways most likely to hit you with a ticket

Isuzu D-Max Arctic Truck AT35

Opinion: This Arctic Truck is the best thing I’ve driven this year

Isuzu D-Max Arctic Truck AT35

Money no object: what do you buy as a brand new, go-anywhere toy in a post-Defender era? A Unimog, perhaps, but that’s overkill if all you’re wanting to do is travel down a few farm tracks and perhaps the odd off-road pay-and-play day. There’s the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, of course, but that’s a bit bling to get properly gloopy. The Jeep Wrangler is a good shout, but a tad ‘Donald Trump’ for my liking, while the brilliant little Suzuki Jimny will only work if you have nothing but a two-man tent to carry on your weekend expeditions.

Your attention, then, may turn to trucks. And there are plenty of them on the market. The age-old Japanese competitors – the Nissan Navara, Mitsubishi L200 and Toyota Hilux – are worth considering, while the Volkswagen Amarok and Mercedes-Benz X-Class add a bit of class to the sector.

Video: How Isuzu made this truck unstoppable off-road

So where does this leave the Malaysian-built Isuzu D-Max? Well, when it’s been tweaked by arctic truck specialists Arctic Trucks, it’s possibly the biggest (and therefore coolest) pick-up truck money can buy. In the UK, anyway.

You may be familiar with Arctic Trucks. The Icelandic firm specialises in modifying four-wheel-drive vehicles for extreme conditions. It famously converted a Toyota Hilux for Jeremy Clarkson and co. to drive to the Magnetic North Pole as part of a Top Gear special in 2007.

Now, the company has worked its magic on the Isuzu D-Max. The result is the Arctic Trucks AT35, which you can buy from any Isuzu dealer for £37,995 – or around £7,000 more than the standard Utah model on which it’s based.

For that, you get chunky 35-inch all-terrain tyres on 17-inch alloys and an extra 55mm of ride height (which, combined with the off-road rubber, provides a total 290mm of ground clearance). There are also Fox Performance dampers, as well as various cosmetic tweaks: Arctic Trucks decals, mud flaps and flared wheelarches, for example.

It really looks the part. A bit in-your-face, perhaps, especially in the Splash White of our test car. But it gets away with it to an extent. It’s not garish like a white Range Rover on 22-inch alloys, it simply means business.

The result is a car that can’t fail to be intimidating on the road, no matter how courteously you drive it. Meet another car on a single-track country lane and they’ll be reversing before you’ve brought the three-tonne truck to a halt, while around town even the most assertive of private-hire drivers will resist cutting you up.

It’s a bit of a handful on city streets, admittedly, but visibility is acceptable and big mirrors help when slotting the AT35 into conventional parking spaces. Whether there’ll be enough room left to open door and climb out is another matter.

On open roads, it’s probably best described as ‘wayward’. The steering wanders all over the place, while the ancient chassis set-up results in a ride that’s both floaty yet jittery. Tyre roar is very noticeable, too, and be prepared for lots of body roll during even the most relaxed of cornering.

The new 1.9-litre turbodiesel engine is extremely vocal – especially when cold – and a lack of torque might prove to be an issue if you regularly tow hefty trailers. On the motorway, it’s at its happiest sat at 60mph in the inside lane, providing you with better views over the armco than you’d get in a typical SUV. We took the AT35 for a motorway run up to the NEC Classic Motor Show and loved it – the aforementioned “don’t mess with me” attitude it exudes, combined with being able to see over lesser vehicles, make up for the lack of refinement.

Isuzu D-Max Arctic Truck AT35

But that’s not what it’s all about. While we didn’t approach anywhere near the limits of the D-Max’s abilities, we did try it on a rutted, hilly green lane and the biggest issue we came across was having to (electrically) fold in the door mirrors to prevent losing them on a tree branch. Going by the facts – the unbeatable ground clearance and impressive approach/departure angles – we’re sure the AT35 will take most things thrown at it off-road.

Unless you tell it otherwise, the D-Max operates in two-wheel drive most of the time, but flicking it into four-wheel drive is easy enough using a dial by the handbrake. If you want low range, this can be engaged using the same dial when stopped and in neutral. We found it was happy tackling most obstacles in four-wheel drive and high range. Our test car was an automatic (and a relatively good one, as it happens), but you can control it manually – should you want to engage a low gear to maintain engine braking and prevent it running away downhill. There are no differential locks, which is perhaps an issue in gloopy mud, but most of the time we doubt it’d be an issue.

Am I sold on the Isuzu D-Max AT35 then? Well, yes. It’d take a special kind of person to chop-in their crossover for one, and the family probably wouldn’t thank you for it. It’s big, cumbersome, uncomfortable, and I’ve not even bothered telling you how poor the interior is. But would it be in my lottery-win garage? You betcha. Out of all the cars I’ve driven this year – including supercars worth several times the £38,000 retail price of the AT35 – this is the one that boasted the biggest ‘feel good’ factor. I love it.

In pictures: 2017 Isuzu D-Max Arctic Trucks AT35

>NEXT: Best new pick-up trucks in the UK

Seat Ateca FR

Opinion: This £32,000 Qashqai-rival proves Seat has lost its way

Seat Ateca FR

There was a time when £32,000-worth of sporty Seat was an exciting prospect. VW’s Spanish division was the king of hot hatches, capable of injecting flair into the most mundane of everyday cars.

Seat’s lost its way somewhat in recent years, though. While cars such as the Mii, Leon and last-generation Ibiza have all been perfectly good, they’ve lost that bit of panache traditionally associated with the ‘Spanish Alfa Romeo’. Why would you buy any of them over the equivalent model from in-house budget rival Skoda?

Back in 2013, Seat’s managing director at the time told Motoring Research that Seat’s future was in the mundane: “Anything that suggests they are niche and radical will not lead to further growth,” Juergen Stackmann told MR at the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show.

Seat’s certainly been true to that statement. But things haven’t been easy for the brand. It’s only just back in the black after a decade of unprofitability – reporting an operating profit of €143.5 million last year. A year earlier, it reported a €7.3 million loss.

The manufacturer’s hopes for drastic change from being Volkswagen Group’s black sheep are pinned on one car: the Ateca. Seat’s first SUV went on sale last year, aiming to tempt Nissan Qashqai buyers and treading the way for the smaller Juke-rivalling Arona.

While a hot Cupra version of the Ateca is on its way, the sportiest version of the Ateca you can buy today is the FR model. Watch our video below to find out what exactly Seat’s done to make it sporty, but in short: bling 19-inch alloys (optional), adaptive dampers (optional) and various sporty trinkets such as a rear spoiler, aluminium pedals and beefed up wheelarches (all standard on the FR).

Even to the casual crossover enthusiast, the Ateca FR looks brilliant, especially in the sparkling Nevada White of our test car. I can understand it would seem like overkill to some, but it looks infinitely more eye-catching than its arch-nemesis, the Qashqai. That could be more to do with the Qashqai’s ubiquity than anything else, though.

It’s a shame, then, that the Ateca FR’s appearance banks cheques it can’t cash in the driving department. Many buyers are likely to opt for the 150hp 2.0-litre turbodiesel we’re testing here. While it’s fine, it’s nothing special, and even selecting Sport mode does little more than make it a touch noisier and firmer.

Four-wheel drive adds a touch of confidence on cold or wet roads, but the handling is as you’d expect for a crossover of this size. That is: predictable, safe, boring.

Too harsh? Probably. There’s little doubt about it: objectively, the Ateca is the best car Seat’s ever made. It’s practical, feels upmarket and offers good value for money, unless you go overboard on the options. But the FR’s appearance reminds us that Seats can be ultra-desirable, while the driving experience is, well, just like Volkswagen Group’s take on the Qashqai. Which is exactly what it is, and exactly what buyers want.

The sheer number of Atecas we’re already seeing on the road suggests this will definitely be the car to take Seat further into profit. And we understand why people will buy it. Heck, if I had any need for a Qashqai-shaped car, I’d probably buy an Ateca myself. But not the FR, though… if I wanted a sporty crossover, I’d wait for the Cupra.

Watch: 10 ways Seat has made this family SUV sporty

In pictures: 2017 Seat Ateca FR

>NEXT: Seat Ateca SUV revealed – can it take on the Qashqai?

Opinion: Why financing a brand new Suzuki Jimny is a brilliant idea... or is it?

Opinion: Why buying a Suzuki Jimny on PCP is a brilliant idea… isn’t it?

Opinion: Why financing a brand new Suzuki Jimny is a brilliant idea... or is it?

The Suzuki Jimny is a flawed, outdated 4×4 that has barely changed since 1998 and is well overdue the axe. Suzuki knows this, which is why it’s finally going to bring out a new model next year.

But, despite its faults, we quite like the outgoing Suzuki Jimny. It’s got character, in a way the Defender had (remember that?), yet its dinky dimensions make it a funny thing to drive. Being Japanese, it’s less likely to break down than a Defender, too.

So much so that, when taking my parents to a Suzuki dealer to convince them of the merits of a new Swift, I found myself convincing myself that buying a Jimny would be an excellent idea.

Of course, the sensible thing to do would be to hit Auto Trader and spend as little as £1,000 on a secondhand Jimny. The earliest examples may be nearly 20 years old, and possibly led a hard life, but they’ll fundamentally be the same as a brand new one. And the £12,000-plus saved would go a long way towards upgrading a ropey example.

However, that’s like saying a pair of secondhand hiking boots are identical to a brand new pair bought from Millets. They might look similar, and do the same job, but buying new gives you more choice and the chance to wear them in yourself. The boots will be yours from day one – never having been soiled by someone else’s smelly feet. So, if I buy a Jimny, I want a brand new one.

Unfortunately, a brand new Jimny starts at £12,999, and I’ve not got that kind of cash to spend on impulse on a Jimny. So I did what the majority of new car buyers do – and started looking into PCP deals. With 0 percent finance stickers plastered over the Swift, I was hoping that offer might extend to the Jimny. It doesn’t. But let’s not write it off as a mad idea just yet.


How does PCP work?

The majority of new car purchases are now made using some form of finance – usually Personal Contract Plan (or PCP). PCPs are usually split over three years (occasionally slightly more or less), and are made up of three main factors:

  • The deposit. This is often around 10 percent of the car’s value, but does vary a lot between manufacturers. It can be as little as £0, other times it’s a third or even half the car’s value. The bigger the deposit, the less you’ll have to pay each month.
  • The monthly payment. You’re essentially paying off the car’s depreciation here – not its value. If, for example, you buy a £15,000 car that’ll be worth £5,000 when your PCP is up, you’ll pay £10,000 during your time with the car. If your PCP runs for 36 months, and you pay a £1,500 deposit, that’ll equate to monthly payments of around £235.
  • The balloon payment. Also referred to as the ‘guaranteed future value’, this is how much the finance company thinks the car will be worth when the PCP is up. If you wish, you can pay this figure and buy the car outright (this could be worth doing if the balloon value is rather conservative… i.e. lower than what the car would be worth on the private market). Alternatively, you can hand your car back to the dealer at this point, without any extra fees to pay unless you’ve gone over the mileage allowances or there’s more damage than reasonable wear and tear. Most buyers decide to ‘swap’ their car for another new model, extending their PCP.

Based on the entry-level SZ3 (the one I want – no privacy glass, alloy wheels or leather seats on my Jimny, thank you very much), Suzuki’s offering a 6.9 percent APR PCP deal based over four years. That’s with a £2,273 deposit – not outrageous, even if it could buy you a secondhand Jimny outright – and 48 monthly payments of £195. That starts with a ‘1’, so is good enough for me.

What would I do after four years? Hand back the Jimny with nothing to show for my cash? Not a chance. By then, Suzuki reckons it’d be worth a meagre £4,372. So, if I divide that figure over the 48 months I’ll have ‘owned’ the Jimny so far, it works out at just £91.08 per month. If I stick that money into a savings account each month, after four years I’ll be able to buy my Jimny outright. And by that point, Suzuki will have replaced the Jimny and mine will be well into future classic status. It’s practically an investment.

It’s worth noting that there’s a 6,000-mile limit on this deal – no good for most if you want to drive a Jimny every day. But as it’d share a garage with a Toyota MR2 and I’d be planning on buying it outright anyway, the mileage limit wouldn’t be a huge concern for me.

There’s a ‘but’ though, and it’s a big one. Assuming I can afford the £2,273 deposit, and I’m definitely planning on keeping it after four years, I could just get a bank loan for the remaining £11,000 and buy the Jimny outright in the first place. With banks offering low interest rates on loans at the moment, that means I could buy a brand new Jimny for around £240 a month. More than the PCP alone, but less than the PCP plus the extra £91 going into a savings account allowing me to keep hold of it.

The moral of the story, I guess, is that it’s worth doing some research if you’re looking into car finance. PCP deals often work out if you want a new car every three years, but do your homework first. There are often cheaper ways of buying a new car.

Will I buy a Jimny? Watch this space…

>NEXT: The Suzuki Jimny needs a proper send-off