Audi A4

Opinion: sorry, Britain, you’re buying the wrong compact executive car

Audi A4

Hold the front page:new car registrations hit a record high in 2016, with more of us buying new cars than ever before. Well, knock me down with a feather and call me ‘pre-reg’ – it’s hardly a tale of the unexpected, is it?

Don’t expect any plot twists in the top 20, either. Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa, Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf, Nissan Qash…

Sorry, drifted off there for a moment.

Actually, the real interest lies in what’s absent from the list. Take the compact executive segment, for example. The Mercedes C-Class: in at number nine. The BMW 3 Series: a chart-hogging 14th. The Audi A4: fails to the make the top 20.

Wait, what? The only Audi to make the grade is the A3, which manages to creep above the Mercedes A-Class to sit on the throne as the fresh prince of the premium hatchbacks. But the A4 – widely considered one of the best real-world cars Audi has ever made – is conspicuous by its absence.

Sure, you can thank PCP deals, lease agreements and discounted cars for muddying the waters, but I’d like to put it on record that the new Audi A4 deserves far more attention. Allow me to explain.

It’s at this point that you might argue that Audi doesn’t need any support when it comes to marketing. The brand is such that many non-car people aspire to Audi ownership without really knowing why. And for company car drivers, an Audi is the modern equivalent of a Ghia or CD badge on your boot of your executive express.

You might also point to the – how can I put this – less than polished image of a select group of Audi drivers as a reason not to own an A4. And, yes, many instances of erratic driving do tend to involve an Audi of some description.

But I put this to you: would Tailgating Terry, Late-Braking Larry and Speeding Steve really be interested in the common or garden A4? Surely the A3, S4, A5 and S5 are more suited to their antics? Discuss.

Besides, we all know saloon cars have had their day, right? #Crossover

Audi A4 saloon

I had the pleasure of running a long-term Audi A4 for Diesel Car for six months. I wanted it to be as far removed from a rep-spec A4 as possible, so I ticked the 3.0-litre V6 TDI box, along with Tango Red paint and a host of other options.

I’m ashamed to admit I found the S line trim too hard to resist, but I did manage to avoid upscaling to 19-inch rims, figuring a set of 18-inch diamond cut alloys would be better for my spine.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was almost impossible to find fault with the A4. I could say that the S tronic transmission was a mistake, but that’s a pitfall easily avoided by opting for a manual gearbox.

I could also say that Apple CarPlay threw the occasional wobbly and some of the many driver assistance tools could be prone to the odd hiccup, but these would have to be filed under ‘first world problems’.

Then there’s the price. At £45,825, my test car was getting perilously close to A7 and Q7 money. I could pen a few paragraphs attempting to justify spending £46k, but I’m struggling to get my head around such an expensive Audi A4.

It probably doesn’t help that I once spent £300 on an Audi 80 and £420 on a first-gen A4 to tackle airport runs. Spending even four figures on a car sends me into a cold sweat and keeps me awake at night.

But here’s the thing. Not once did I feel shortchanged for ‘my’ £46,000. Spend any amount of time inside a new A4 and you’re left with the impression of a car honed and chiseled to within a millimetre of perfection. Forget all the nonsense you might have read about the A4 being too much of an evolutionary step. It’s far better than that.

For sure, the styling is, at best, sombre. And the driving experience is best served on trunk roads than it is on back roads. But other than that I’m struggling to find anything wrong with it, even after six months behind the wheel.

I miss the combination of fuel economy in the mid 40s and a 0-62 time of 6.3 seconds. I miss the clever Virtual Cockpit, even with its daft name. I miss the ride comfort, the quality of which will be alien to anyone who has driven a modern Audi over the past decade.

Two months on, I miss the adaptive cruise control, which is near as I ever want to get to an autonomous car. Set the sat nav to your destination – which is gloriously easy in itself – point the car in the right direction and it’ll pretty much drive itself. It slows for cars in front, reacts to a change in the speed limit and will automatically re-route itself if there’s a delay up ahead. Heck, it will even steer itself round corners.

Audi A4 interior

But most of all I miss the interior, which is wonderfully free of any touchscreen nonsense. At first there’s a bewildering array of switches and controls to become familiar with, but you soon learn that it’s one of the most ergonomic and driver-focused cars in the business. It even has a proper volume dial for the excellent (but optional) Bang & Olufsen stereo, and a very old-school dial for the dashboard illumination.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the simplicity of a new Volvo interior. But somebody at Audi has stuck two fingers up at the folk who believe touchscreens are the way forward. And that somebody deserves a medal.

It’s the little details you might not notice on a press launch or quick test-drive, like the magnificent, if terribly geeky, four-lever bonnet hinge and washer bottle hidden within the front wing. Or the shut-lines, which are tighter than a fly’s bottom caught in a spider’s web.

And while diesel engines might be as popular as Donald Trump in a taco bar, the 3.0-litre V6 TDI is so wonderfully free of vibrations and harshness, you’d swear blind there was a petrol unit beneath that clamshell bonnet. That it can, even in the lower 218hp guise, show a hot hatch a clean pair of heels is an added bonus.

Yet despite all the positivity, I’ll have to admit that the Audi A4 never really got under my skin. It was so utterly efficient, to the point of it being, well, a little bit dull. Like my dishwasher and fridge freezer – both of which are German – I almost took it for granted. But rather than a criticism, that’s arguably the A4’s greatest strength.

It’s dependable, reliable, free of faults and the kind of car you’d take home to meet the in-laws. Take it on a one-night stand and you’re unlikely to remember much in the morning. But as an unassuming tool for the long haul, the Audi A4 is a close to perfection as you’re ever likely to get.

Volvo XC90 T8 review

Opinion: the Volvo XC90 T8 is brilliant – but it's ruined my Christmas

Volvo XC90 T8 review

In another world, I’d have a proper job that pays proper money. Writing about cars for a living is a privileged existence, but it doesn’t pay the big bucks. And while I get to drive some of the world’s finest cars, I’m often left with a sense of crushing disappointment.

Take the Volvo XC90 T8, for example. A month to the day since I reluctantly handed the keys back to Volvo, I still haven’t come to terms with my loss. And as we know, 2016 has been a year filled with sad losses.

I’ve made no secret of my irrational hatred of the new breed of crossovers and SUVs. I’m old enough to remember a time when cars would slot neatly into categories and the world knew where it stood. The blurring of the lines has left me feeling dazed and confused.

But I still have a great affection for a proper, full-size SUV. And while the Volvo XC90 might not be the kind of SUV you’d take on a jungle expedition – I’d borrow a Toyota Land Cruiser for such antics – it’s more than capable of facing up to the toughest challenge in the world: family life.

Allow me to explain.

The XC90 isn’t new to me. I attended the UK launch in Yorkshire and have fond memories of being perched on a hillside listening to a Last Night of the Proms rendition of Jerusalem, streamed through the outstandingly good Bowers & Wilkins audio system.

Engage the so-called ‘Gothenburg Concert Hall’ setting and it’s akin to being in the front row of the Bournemouth Pavilion listening to an orchestra. I’d like to say it’s like being in the Gothenburg Concert Hall, but I’ve never had the pleasure. But take it from me, it’s good enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention.

If you’re buying a Volvo XC90, you might as well add £3,000 to the purchase price, as it’s a must-have upgrade. Even if I do find Volvo’s decision to charge £300 for Apple CarPlay a little Scrooge-like. Bah humbug, or whatever they might say in Sweden.

I’m reliably informed – by a Volvo test driver, no less – that the word is ‘lurendrejeri’. Yes, Volvo, not offering CarPlay for free is a bit of a fiddle. But I digress.

Last Christmas I drove an XC90 D5 from Devon to Scotland (and back), before concluding that my life wouldn’t be complete until I had one parked outside my house. There are other things that would make my life complete – Keeley Hawes on speed dial, Brentford FC in the Premier League, and a lifetime supply of Hobnobs – but you get the picture.

With the benefit of hindsight, the D5 wouldn’t be my first choice of engine. Frugal it might be, but it falls just short of being able to power this two-tonne SUV without breaking sweat. A Yamaha-built V8 engine would do nicely, but Volvo is committed to a four-cylinder future, so there’s no chance of that.

Which brings me back to the T8. Right now, this is as close to perfection as you can get. There are faults, of course there are, but to point them out would be like flying to New York on Concorde and then complaining that the flight was too short.

But in the interests of balance, let me list the minor indiscretions I listed under ‘nitpicking’ in my Moleskine notebook. Weirdly, in the two XC90s I’ve spent an extended period of time with, the passenger side heated seat had a tendency to switch itself off. Annoying, if you enjoy the feeling of a warm bum.

Then there’s the sat-nav, which at first looks great in its tablet-style portrait mode. But the map is woefully short on detail and terribly disappointing to anyone who has experience with, say, a new Audi. And don’t get me started on the issue of fingerprints ruining what is a central part of the cabin.

Yes, Volvo puts a small cleaning cloth in the glovebox, but you just know that will be lost within the first couple of months. Or your youngest child will have used it to blow their nose. And by including the cloth, Volvo is acknowledging it might be an issue. A small detail, perhaps, but I told you I was nitpicking.

I could also point to the claimed 134.5mpg on a combined cycle, but surely nobody buys a T8 and expects to achieve such a lofty figure. In reality, after a week of driving, we were seeing figures in the mid 30s. An eco-hybrid this is not. In fact, be prepared to get on first name terms with your local petrol station cashier.

But that’s where the nitpicking ends. Whilst acknowledging that in this case love might be blind, I’m struggling to find any real issues of note.

Take the styling. Somehow, Volvo has managed to build a car that remains elegant and graceful – a stark contrast to the SUVs churned out by the Germans. While a Q7, X5 and whatever Mercedes-Benz is calling its large SUV these days might look brash, brutish and menacing, the XC90 somehow blends into its surroundings.

XC90 T8

It’s not that it’s small. A length of 4,950mm and width of 2,140mm pitches it neatly between the BMW X5 and Audi Q7. In other words, somewhere between a cathedral and the town hall. Yet it looks no more out of place than a tanning shop in Alderley Edge.

Then there’s the packaging. Because Volvo designed the XC90 for electrification from the ground up, the battery pack makes no difference to the size of the boot. Meanwhile, opt for the Mercedes-Benz GLE plug-in hybrid and you’re left with a box in the boot that resembles something your mate Bill knocked up in his shed.

It gets better. The fit and finish in the cabin is such that, even when your wife suggests visiting the in-laws or heading to a retail park on a Saturday afternoon, you’ll be only too pleased to oblige. Just be prepared to spend the entire day longing for the drive home.

A word or two about the engine. The T in T8 stands for Twin Engine, which means you’re treated to a 320hp petrol engine at the front and an 87hp electric motor at the rear. You don’t need to be Rachel Riley to calculate that this gives the XC90 a total of 407hp. Four hundred and seven!

The top speed of 140mph isn’t going to trouble the black luxobarges on the outside lane of ze autobahn, but the time it takes to reach 62mph might. Engage ‘POWER’ mode and this luxury appointed Stockholm penthouse suite will hit the mark in 5.6 seconds.

Think about that for a moment. This full-size, seven-seat SUV is quick enough to go hunting sports cars on a B-road. Not that you’ll want to do any kind of chasing or hunting in the XC90. The car is too well-mannered for such nonsense.

But by ‘eck does it feel quick. In power mode, it’s as though a bolt of electric runs through the XC90’s body, as if magic dust has been sprinkled on Santa’s reindeer. All of a sudden, the gas pedal requires only the slightest of touch before you’re hurtling towards the next bend.

At this point you’ll discover that the XC90 will lean a little if you’re too enthusiastic through the bend. But to complain about body roll in an XC90 is like criticising your armchair for not chilling your wine. Comfortable, relaxing and safe – three things your sofa shares in common with the XC90.

Sadly, you can’t equip your three-piece suite with four-corner electronic air suspension. On steel springs, the XC90 is perfectly fine. Add the air suspension and you’ll feel like you’re driving across a bed of marshmallows laced with the fur from a chinchilla. You could drive over Chipping Norton and not feel it.

OK, I’m fully aware that this is turning into a love letter penned for the Volvo XC90. But the internet is awash with rational car reviews about steering feel, load capacity and CO2 emissions (it’s 49g/km, in case you were wondering).

But, just occasionally, a car comes along that ticks all the boxes. Emotionally and rationally, I find the Volvo XC90 so damn appealing I just had to open my heart. Money no object, I’d buy an XC90 tomorrow and spend the rest of my life drenched in smug satisfaction.

I’ve even taken the liberty of speccing my ideal car. Sadly, it comes in at £84,200, some £20,000 more than the entry-level T8 Momentum and around £84,000 over budget.

My ideal Volvo XC90

Dear Santa, if you’re reading this, I’ll take mine in Twilight Bronze, with 22-inch rims, air suspension, Bowers & Wilkins and a few extra toys thrown in for good measure. I’ll collect it from the Volvo dealer at the North Pole, ta.

The night before I reluctantly handed the car back to Volvo, I was driving home along the M5, children cocooned in the back, wife Whatsapping in the front seat. I glanced over my shoulder at my two children, safe in the knowledge that daddy was driving the safest car in the world. If you’re a father, you’ll know there’s a lot to be said for that.

Unfortunately, this particular daddy can’t afford to buy the safest car in the world. Sorry, kids. If you work hard at school, you might get a proper job that pays proper money. Then you can afford the nicer things in life.

To Volvo, I say this: your mission to ensure nobody should be killed or injured in a new Volvo is admirable, but it can’t do much about crushing disappointment.

Volvo XC90 T8 review

Opinion: the Volvo XC90 T8 is brilliant – but it’s ruined my Christmas

Volvo XC90 T8 review

In another world, I’d have a proper job that pays proper money. Writing about cars for a living is a privileged existence, but it doesn’t pay the big bucks. And while I get to drive some of the world’s finest cars, I’m often left with a sense of crushing disappointment.

Take the Volvo XC90 T8, for example. A month to the day since I reluctantly handed the keys back to Volvo, I still haven’t come to terms with my loss. And as we know, 2016 has been a year filled with sad losses.

I’ve made no secret of my irrational hatred of the new breed of crossovers and SUVs. I’m old enough to remember a time when cars would slot neatly into categories and the world knew where it stood. The blurring of the lines has left me feeling dazed and confused.

But I still have a great affection for a proper, full-size SUV. And while the Volvo XC90 might not be the kind of SUV you’d take on a jungle expedition – I’d borrow a Toyota Land Cruiser for such antics – it’s more than capable of facing up to the toughest challenge in the world: family life.

Allow me to explain.

The XC90 isn’t new to me. I attended the UK launch in Yorkshire and have fond memories of being perched on a hillside listening to a Last Night of the Proms rendition of Jerusalem, streamed through the outstandingly good Bowers & Wilkins audio system.

Engage the so-called ‘Gothenburg Concert Hall’ setting and it’s akin to being in the front row of the Bournemouth Pavilion listening to an orchestra. I’d like to say it’s like being in the Gothenburg Concert Hall, but I’ve never had the pleasure. But take it from me, it’s good enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention.

If you’re buying a Volvo XC90, you might as well add £3,000 to the purchase price, as it’s a must-have upgrade. Even if I do find Volvo’s decision to charge £300 for Apple CarPlay a little Scrooge-like. Bah humbug, or whatever they might say in Sweden.

I’m reliably informed – by a Volvo test driver, no less – that the word is ‘lurendrejeri’. Yes, Volvo, not offering CarPlay for free is a bit of a fiddle. But I digress.

Last Christmas I drove an XC90 D5 from Devon to Scotland (and back), before concluding that my life wouldn’t be complete until I had one parked outside my house. There are other things that would make my life complete – Keeley Hawes on speed dial, Brentford FC in the Premier League, and a lifetime supply of Hobnobs – but you get the picture.

With the benefit of hindsight, the D5 wouldn’t be my first choice of engine. Frugal it might be, but it falls just short of being able to power this two-tonne SUV without breaking sweat. A Yamaha-built V8 engine would do nicely, but Volvo is committed to a four-cylinder future, so there’s no chance of that.

Which brings me back to the T8. Right now, this is as close to perfection as you can get. There are faults, of course there are, but to point them out would be like flying to New York on Concorde and then complaining that the flight was too short.

But in the interests of balance, let me list the minor indiscretions I listed under ‘nitpicking’ in my Moleskine notebook. Weirdly, in the two XC90s I’ve spent an extended period of time with, the passenger side heated seat had a tendency to switch itself off. Annoying, if you enjoy the feeling of a warm bum.

Then there’s the sat-nav, which at first looks great in its tablet-style portrait mode. But the map is woefully short on detail and terribly disappointing to anyone who has experience with, say, a new Audi. And don’t get me started on the issue of fingerprints ruining what is a central part of the cabin.

Yes, Volvo puts a small cleaning cloth in the glovebox, but you just know that will be lost within the first couple of months. Or your youngest child will have used it to blow their nose. And by including the cloth, Volvo is acknowledging it might be an issue. A small detail, perhaps, but I told you I was nitpicking.

I could also point to the claimed 134.5mpg on a combined cycle, but surely nobody buys a T8 and expects to achieve such a lofty figure. In reality, after a week of driving, we were seeing figures in the mid 30s. An eco-hybrid this is not. In fact, be prepared to get on first name terms with your local petrol station cashier.

But that’s where the nitpicking ends. Whilst acknowledging that in this case love might be blind, I’m struggling to find any real issues of note.

Take the styling. Somehow, Volvo has managed to build a car that remains elegant and graceful – a stark contrast to the SUVs churned out by the Germans. While a Q7, X5 and whatever Mercedes-Benz is calling its large SUV these days might look brash, brutish and menacing, the XC90 somehow blends into its surroundings.

XC90 T8

It’s not that it’s small. A length of 4,950mm and width of 2,140mm pitches it neatly between the BMW X5 and Audi Q7. In other words, somewhere between a cathedral and the town hall. Yet it looks no more out of place than a tanning shop in Alderley Edge.

Then there’s the packaging. Because Volvo designed the XC90 for electrification from the ground up, the battery pack makes no difference to the size of the boot. Meanwhile, opt for the Mercedes-Benz GLE plug-in hybrid and you’re left with a box in the boot that resembles something your mate Bill knocked up in his shed.

It gets better. The fit and finish in the cabin is such that, even when your wife suggests visiting the in-laws or heading to a retail park on a Saturday afternoon, you’ll be only too pleased to oblige. Just be prepared to spend the entire day longing for the drive home.

A word or two about the engine. The T in T8 stands for Twin Engine, which means you’re treated to a 320hp petrol engine at the front and an 87hp electric motor at the rear. You don’t need to be Rachel Riley to calculate that this gives the XC90 a total of 407hp. Four hundred and seven!

The top speed of 140mph isn’t going to trouble the black luxobarges on the outside lane of ze autobahn, but the time it takes to reach 62mph might. Engage ‘POWER’ mode and this luxury appointed Stockholm penthouse suite will hit the mark in 5.6 seconds.

Think about that for a moment. This full-size, seven-seat SUV is quick enough to go hunting sports cars on a B-road. Not that you’ll want to do any kind of chasing or hunting in the XC90. The car is too well-mannered for such nonsense.

But by ‘eck does it feel quick. In power mode, it’s as though a bolt of electric runs through the XC90’s body, as if magic dust has been sprinkled on Santa’s reindeer. All of a sudden, the gas pedal requires only the slightest of touch before you’re hurtling towards the next bend.

At this point you’ll discover that the XC90 will lean a little if you’re too enthusiastic through the bend. But to complain about body roll in an XC90 is like criticising your armchair for not chilling your wine. Comfortable, relaxing and safe – three things your sofa shares in common with the XC90.

Sadly, you can’t equip your three-piece suite with four-corner electronic air suspension. On steel springs, the XC90 is perfectly fine. Add the air suspension and you’ll feel like you’re driving across a bed of marshmallows laced with the fur from a chinchilla. You could drive over Chipping Norton and not feel it.

OK, I’m fully aware that this is turning into a love letter penned for the Volvo XC90. But the internet is awash with rational car reviews about steering feel, load capacity and CO2 emissions (it’s 49g/km, in case you were wondering).

But, just occasionally, a car comes along that ticks all the boxes. Emotionally and rationally, I find the Volvo XC90 so damn appealing I just had to open my heart. Money no object, I’d buy an XC90 tomorrow and spend the rest of my life drenched in smug satisfaction.

I’ve even taken the liberty of speccing my ideal car. Sadly, it comes in at £84,200, some £20,000 more than the entry-level T8 Momentum and around £84,000 over budget.

My ideal Volvo XC90

Dear Santa, if you’re reading this, I’ll take mine in Twilight Bronze, with 22-inch rims, air suspension, Bowers & Wilkins and a few extra toys thrown in for good measure. I’ll collect it from the Volvo dealer at the North Pole, ta.

The night before I reluctantly handed the car back to Volvo, I was driving home along the M5, children cocooned in the back, wife Whatsapping in the front seat. I glanced over my shoulder at my two children, safe in the knowledge that daddy was driving the safest car in the world. If you’re a father, you’ll know there’s a lot to be said for that.

Unfortunately, this particular daddy can’t afford to buy the safest car in the world. Sorry, kids. If you work hard at school, you might get a proper job that pays proper money. Then you can afford the nicer things in life.

To Volvo, I say this: your mission to ensure nobody should be killed or injured in a new Volvo is admirable, but it can’t do much about crushing disappointment.

New Suzuki Ignis Sport?

Opinion: why Suzuki must build a new Ignis Sport

New Suzuki Ignis Sport?

“There are currently no plans to build a new Ignis Sport,” said a spokesperson during the launch of the all-new Suzuki Ignis. Well, with the greatest respect, Suzuki, may I suggest you stop what you’re doing and start making plans.

The world needs a reborn Ignis Sport for a new generation and, Mr Spokesperson, you need it if you’re serious about going after a younger audience.

Back in the mid-noughties, Suzuki built the Ignis Sport to enable it to go racing. The firm enjoyed success in the Junior World Rally Championship (JWRC), making the Ignis Sport a homologation special with a fair amount of pedigree.

Heck, it can share a table with the likes of the Lancia Delta Integrale, Audi Quattro and Peugeot 205 T16. Of sorts.

Suzuki Ignis JWRC

Suzuki Ignis Sport: fishnets and white boots

Not that you’ll need to drop a small fortune to secure this tiny slice of Japanese rallying history. A really good Suzuki Ignis Sport could be sat on your driveway for as little as £1,500.

And for that, you get a 1.5-litre 16-valve engine producing 110hp and 103lb ft of torque. Hardly headline figures, but this bats-in-the-belfry rally special weighed a mere 945kg, ensuring it could reach 60mph in under nine seconds.

Suzuki dropped it 50mm and fitted firmer springs and stiffer dampers to ensure that potholes and drain covers were obstacles to avoid when taking the rally special stage to the office. Unless you were happy to have a chiropractor on speed dial.

The ventilated disc brakes, body kit, extended arches and rear spoiler hinted at its rallying pedigree, while 15-inch white alloy wheels and Recaro seats with fishnet head restraints were straight out of the car accessories catalogue, circa 1995.

But you know something, the Ignis Sport was more than a match for its rival pint-size tearaways. The likes of the Ford SportKa, Fiat Panda 100HP, Volkswagen Lupo GTI and MINI Cooper might be more illustrious, but the Ignis was quite the upstart.

Suzuki Ignis Sport

It revelled in being given a damn good thrashing, helped in no small part by the variable valve timing, giving it a noticeable kick around 4,000rpm. If old-school thrills are your bag, the Ignis invites you to fill your boots.

It might not be the most fashionable of naughties from the noughties, but those in the know appreciate the Ignis Sport for being a bit of a rebel. That it’s largely forgotten helps to keep values down. For now.

New Suzuki Ignis: ‘retrocutesy’?

Which brings me back to the case in point: the prospect of an all-new Ignis Sport. Forget Brexit, Trump and Danny Baker being the first to be booted out of the jungle, if Suzuki doesn’t build a new Sport, it’ll be the biggest injustice of the decade.

The ingredients are there. Take the styling, which is a delightful blend of retro and cutesy – ‘retrocutesy’, said nobody, ever. Seriously, the new Ignis is crying out for its own one-make race series on Gran Turismo. It just looks the part.

Then there’s the weight, with the Ignis tipping the scales at a mere 810kg. It’s like a Citroen AX GT for the new millennium, requiring a modest amount of power to hustle a well-driven sports car on a twisting B-road.

Imagine the prospect of using the 1.0-litre Boosterjet engine, most recently found in the new Suzuki Baleno. With 110hp on tap and 125lb ft torque, an Ignis Sport could rival the mighty Swift Sport for cross-country pace.

Dare I suggest it might be more fun than the new Renault Twingo GT? The figures are remarkably similar – 110hp and 125lb ft – but the Ignis Sport is likely to weigh significantly less than the surprisingly heavy one-tonne Twingo GT.

Renault Twingo GT

In standard form, the new Ignis is no drivers’ car, but it doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to see how it could be improved. Lower the ride height, stiffen the springs, add a decent pair of sports seats and you’re on the road to something with a little more bite.

New Ignis Sport, new breed of drivers

Here’s the thing: Suzuki is going after MINI and Fiat 500 customers with the new Ignis, suggesting the majority of buyers will be new to the brand. But it freely admits that it’s just as likely to attract Alto and Splash owners, something that could come back to haunt the company in years to come.

The MINI and 500 are successful for a number of reasons, chiefly the marketing spend, brand equity, driver appeal and interior quality. Suzuki won’t be able to match MINI and Fiat in any of these areas, so it needs to think differently.

A fun, affordable and good looking halo model might be the answer. If it can undercut the Twingo GT’s £13,700 price tag, even better. A £12,500 Suzuki Ignis Sport: who wouldn’t want a slice of the action?

Suzuki Turbo Alto RS

Suzuki needs a new breed of drivers: those who could be turned off by the sight of elderly Alto and Splash owners straddling the centre white line as they venture into town. A spine-troubling, street terrorising version would only serve to repel such people.

Do the right thing, Suzuki. And if you can make it look half as good as the Alto Turbo RS, that would be grand. Thank you.

crossovers

Opinion: crossovers are big, but they aren’t clever

 

It’s ten years since the launch of the Nissan Qashqai – widely considered to be the world’s first crossover.

Sure, the Qashqai wasn’t really the first crossover to grace the tarmac driveways of suburbia – you can credit Nissan’s marketing team for its part in this common misconception – but it did shake things up a little. And by little, I mean a lot.

Other carmakers had tried to convince Mr and Mrs Family that there was a crossover-shaped hole in their lives, but it wasn’t until the first Qashqai rolled off the Sunderland production line in December 2006 that this new segment finally took hold.

Simply by being the first out of the blocks, the Nissan Qashqai was able to steal a march over its competitors, quickly becoming the brand generic for what became known as a crossover. Three years later, Nissan gave birth to a smaller sibling in the shape of the Juke and the rest, as they say, is history.

In basic terms, defining a crossover is relatively simple. Combine hatchback dynamics and running costs with the practicality and high driving position of an SUV and, hey presto, a crossover is born.

But it’s not as straightforward as that. Many crossovers offer the option of four-wheel drive, taking them perilously close to what we would – in simpler times – have called an SUV. Actually, scrub that, we’d have called them a 4×4.

This blurring of the lines has resulted in SUVs becoming the dominant sector in Europe, with its market share growing from 19.8% to 22.5% in 2015. The star players: Renault Captur (small SUV), Nissan Qashqai (compact SUV), Volvo XC60 (mid-size SUV) and BMW X5 (large SUV).

The upward trend is set to continue, with JATO Dynamics reporting that SUVs and Vans were the only segments to grow their sales across the five big European markets in October 2016. Meanwhile, MPVs, city cars and medium saloons appear to be spiralling into the abyss.

Soon, the roads will be littered with these odd looking cars with equally odd sounding names. Estate cars, saloons, even hatchbacks will be confined to the history books as carmakers seek to quench our thirst for these high-riding hatchbacks.

Don’t get me wrong, I can see the appeal. We feel safer when perched high above the road, with a commanding view over the traffic ahead. No longer the preserve of the Range Rover driver, today you too can feel imperious at the wheel, and you need not remortgage the Victorian semi to be able to fund the experience.

But answer me this: what happens when we’re all driving crossovers and SUVs? The commanding driving position will simply give you an elevated view of the equally tall car in front of you. You’ll need a six-wheeled Mercedes-AMG if you want to stay a cut above the rest.

6x6

Terror awaits in the retail shopping centre car park, too. According to a recent study, the average parking space is 4.8m long and 2.4m wide, which is too small for some large SUVs.

Our love of obese cars is being blamed by the increase in the number of car park accidents, which now account for a whopping 30% of all prangs in the UK.

In response, NCP told The Times that it intends to increase the size of its parking bays, as it recognises “that vehicles are growing in size, especially SUVs”. Good news? Perhaps not.

Something will have to give. At best, there will be fewer spaces to choose from, which might lead to more incidents of parking rage (if parking rage actually exists). At worst, parking operators will be encouraged to increase prices as it minimises the prospect of lost revenue from fewer bays.

And when you emerge from the shops, armed with bags for life packed with expensive gear you probably didn’t need, you’ll find the crossover isn’t quite as practical as you would have hoped. The Nissan Qashqai – Britain’s favourite crossover – offers 430 litres of boot space.

Not bad, you might think, especially when you consider the fact that the Ford Focus hatchback offers a paltry 316 litres of shopping capacity. But that’s not the end of the story.

Back in the day, motorists who demanded a little more practicality bought an estate car. And the Ford Focus estate offers 476 litres of boot space – 46 litres more than the Qashqai. It’s narrower, too, so you’ll have no problems exiting your car in a modern slim-size parking bay.

Not only that, the Focus will be better to drive and doesn’t have the appearance of a Tonka toy making its way out of Mothercare. And don’t get me started on the behaviour of some crossover drivers.

Ever since Nissan promoted the original Qashqai as “more tough” and “urbanproof”, some drivers have had the mistaken belief that they can charge about the streets as if they were pushing a Matchbox toy car along the living room floor.

Confession time: as my colleagues have told me, I have an “unconventional taste in cars” and have never been one to “follow the herd”.

I’m acutely aware that my tastes are of the acquired kind. I found love in a hopeless place (Nissan Pulsar 190) and would choose a Suzuki Swift Sport over any of the current breed of mega-horsepower hot hatches.

It’s just that I steadfastly refuse to accept that a crossover offers any tangible benefit over a decent estate car. I’d take a Subaru Outback, Audi Allroad or Volvo XC70 over any of the current breed of crossovers.

And don’t think for one minute that I’m not a fan of proper SUVs. Proper, authentic 4x4s remain joyous machines and I can certainly see the appeal of a Toyota Land Cruiser or Land Rover Discovery. If had to choose one car for the rest of my life, I’d have no hesitation in asking for a Volvo XC90 T8.

Does this make me a hypocrite? I don’t think so. There’s no mixed messaging with a proper SUV – it does exactly what it says in the brochure. Conversely, an extra large two-wheel drive hatchback with a styling bypass offers some of the looks with none of the talents.

Granted, a two-wheel drive crossover will be cheaper to run than a four-wheel drive SUV, but if efficiency tops your list of priorities, you can buy an even more practical diesel estate. It’ll be nicer to drive, easier to park and won’t give you the look of someone who has given up on life.

And while you might point to the raft of cutting edge technologies found in a modern crossover, I’d simply say they are also available in superminis, hatchbacks and saloons.

What we’ve got is a me-too culture in which crossovers have become the dominant force. It’s a little like the dawn of the hatchback, which led to the nation falling out of love with conventional family saloons.

But these hatchbacks used the same footprint as the cars they replaced and offered genuine ingenuity in terms of packaging. A modern crossover has got nothing on say the Renault 16.

No, the ingenuity of the crossover lies in the selling of a lifestyle. A crossover is positioned as the only car that can handle our active and hectic lives – other cars are simply not up to the task.

Our supposed need for more crossovers has resulted in carmakers building some of the most lacklustre and unappealing cars in recent memory. Do we really want our children’s memory of childhood blighted by trips to the seaside in a Ford EcoSport or Vauxhall Mokka?

ecosport

And wouldn’t it be nice to see an end to the countless Qashqai references rolled out in the motoring press? ‘Qashqai killer’, ‘Qashqai rival’, ‘The car to beat the Qashqai’… enough already.

I’m prepared to accept my irrational dislike (not hatred) of crossovers puts me in a minority, and I’m fully aware that this ramble is dangerously close to becoming a rant. But for some balance, allow me to say this: clever crossovers do exist.

The Citroen C4 Cactus is a good case in point, offering something different in a crowded sector. I also like the influence it has had on the new C3, which stands a good chance of giving Citroen a much needed shot in the arm.

The Skoda Yeti, whilst long in the tooth, remains a fun and genuinely compelling proposition, even if I still haven’t forgiven the Czechs for doing away with its unique face. And, yes, the Nissan Qashqai is annoyingly competent in just about every area.

All I ask is that you look beyond the hype and marketing messages to see if there’s a better alternative to a crossover.

And if you – like many other motorists – haven’t got the foggiest idea what a crossover is, simply look across the fence at what your neighbour is driving. Then buy something totally different.

Motorway at night

Opinion: Motorways are smart. Pity drivers aren't

Motorway at nightAs a regular user of the M6 and M1, it happens almost every time I drive on them: someone cruises up the hard shoulder and drives past me.

Quite apart from the obvious rules-flouting undertake, this is also illegal because, well, it’s the hard shoulder, not a live running lane. So why do they do it?

Because it’s a smart motorway section and they clearly think it’s within their right. Indeed, the undertake is probably a badge of honour because I’m in the wrong and they’re teaching me a lesson. (Such is the logic of many road rage-infused motorists.)

Only I’m not. And they’re not so smart. Because although it’s a smart motorway, the ‘smart’ hard shoulder bit isn’t actually live. The overhead gantries, shorn of illuminated speed limit indicators, confirm this.

And if they then do come across someone stopped on the side of the motorway, poking about under their bonnet or struggling to change a wheel – well, it doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?

This is the conundrum of smart motorways: they’re an excellent idea, and the stepchange in available road space really does help manage congestion. I’m all in favour of them – but people need to be taught how to use them, and this is where the Department for Transport has failed.

Because now, it’s almost an assumption that if a motorway is smart, the hard shoulder can be used all the time. And, sooner or later, I fear this is going to cause a big accident. If, indeed, it hasn’t already.

The simple solution is obvious: if the lane is closed, permanently display a big red ‘X’ in that lane. This would make it blindingly obvious to all road users. Oh, and maybe set the speed cameras to capture motorists who drive past a red ‘X’ (or at least tell people that’s what you’re planning to do).

Motorists are still getting used to smart motorways, and an apparent lack of information means many just don’t understand it. So, DfT, until you get your education campaign fully into gear, turn on the crosses. It may just save lives.

Motorway at night

Opinion: Motorways are smart. Pity drivers aren’t

Motorway at nightAs a regular user of the M6 and M1, it happens almost every time I drive on them: someone cruises up the hard shoulder and drives past me.

Quite apart from the obvious rules-flouting undertake, this is also illegal because, well, it’s the hard shoulder, not a live running lane. So why do they do it?

Because it’s a smart motorway section and they clearly think it’s within their right. Indeed, the undertake is probably a badge of honour because I’m in the wrong and they’re teaching me a lesson. (Such is the logic of many road rage-infused motorists.)

Only I’m not. And they’re not so smart. Because although it’s a smart motorway, the ‘smart’ hard shoulder bit isn’t actually live. The overhead gantries, shorn of illuminated speed limit indicators, confirm this.

And if they then do come across someone stopped on the side of the motorway, poking about under their bonnet or struggling to change a wheel – well, it doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?

This is the conundrum of smart motorways: they’re an excellent idea, and the stepchange in available road space really does help manage congestion. I’m all in favour of them – but people need to be taught how to use them, and this is where the Department for Transport has failed.

Because now, it’s almost an assumption that if a motorway is smart, the hard shoulder can be used all the time. And, sooner or later, I fear this is going to cause a big accident. If, indeed, it hasn’t already.

The simple solution is obvious: if the lane is closed, permanently display a big red ‘X’ in that lane. This would make it blindingly obvious to all road users. Oh, and maybe set the speed cameras to capture motorists who drive past a red ‘X’ (or at least tell people that’s what you’re planning to do).

Motorists are still getting used to smart motorways, and an apparent lack of information means many just don’t understand it. So, DfT, until you get your education campaign fully into gear, turn on the crosses. It may just save lives.

World Smile Day

World Smile Day: 10 cars that make us happy

World Smile Day

The smiley face was invented in 1963 by an American artist called Harvey Ball. No, we weren’t all miserable before then, unable to turn our frowns upside down, but Ball is credited with designing the international symbol of happiness.

As a tribute to Ball, World Smile Day is celebrated on the first Friday of October every year. It’s meant to be a day when we put politics, religion and geography to one side, and help spread a smile. We thought we’d attempt to do that by looking at some of the cars we’ve driven recently that put a smile on our face.

It’s not a very scientific list. They aren’t the best cars we’ve driven this year. Obviously, many of them are, but there’s a few in the list that are objectively hard to justify. They just make us smile.

Audi R8 Spyder

Audi R8 Spyder

This one has just made it onto the list, as we’re actually out in Spain driving the Audi R8 Spyder today – on World Smile Day. Lucky us. Not only is it putting a smile on our face, having the sound of that 5.2-litre naturally-aspirated V10 barking away uninterrupted, but the locals are loving it, too.

Every village we pass through, children point and dads encourage us to blip the throttle. In a fast Audi. Imagine that in the UK.

BBR Mazda MX-5

BBR Mazda MX-5

It’s not just supercars that put a smile on our face. The Mazda MX-5 has been making people grin since 1989, and the latest fourth-generation model would be one of the first cars we’d pick for a British B-road drive.

As standard, it’s brilliant – but not quite as good as a modified version we drove earlier this year. Tweaked by MX-5 specialist BBR, the near-perfect soft-top had a revised cold-air intake system, a throatier exhaust and an ECU remap. Chuck in stiffened springs and upgraded brakes, and we’re in automotive nirvana territory. For less than £30,000.

BBR Mazda MX-5: Two-Minute Road Test

Land Rover Defender

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Yes, seeing the last ever Land Rover Defender roll off the production line in January did make us sad. But also happy it was allowed to continue for so long, and put a smile on so many people’s faces in the process. Driving a variety of Defenders on the Scottish island of Islay last year was a fitting tribute to the British icon.

Land Rover Defender: meet the ancestors

Volkswagen Passat GTE

Volkswagen Passat GTE (2016) review: Two-Minute Road Test

We like this car because it proves that the future doesn’t have to be dull. Drive around in a freshly-charged Passat GTE in electric mode, and you’re allowed to exchange smiles with Nissan Leaf drivers and feel warm inside. Press the ‘GTE’ button and it turns into the fastest Passat money can buy – it’s a lot of fun.

Volkswagen Passat GTE (2016) review: Two-Minute Road Test

Porsche Cayman GT4

Porsche Cayman GT4

If ever there was a candidate for ‘all the sports car you’ll ever need’, this is it. The Porsche Cayman GT4 is a junior 911 that offers a purity of drive that is absent from many so-called supercars. Insert cliché about a track car built for the track but alive on the road.

Volvo S90

01_volvo_s90_tmrt

The Volvo S90 is proof that you don’t need to be having fun to wear a big smile on your face. While Volvo’s take on premium luxury won’t leave you grinning like a Cheshire Cat, you will feel like the cat that got the cream.

Get yourself comfy in the S90’s delightfully appointed cabin and it’s like arriving home after a hard day at work, slipping on a pair of slippers, grabbing a glass of your favourite tipple, before settling down in front of a log fire to watch a boxset. Bliss.

Volvo S90 D4 Momentum (2016) review: Two-Minute Road Test

Ford Fiesta ST200

Ford Fiesta ST200: Two-Minute Road Test

Take one of the best hot hatches currently on sale (FACT) and give it a few tweaks to make it even better. A power upgrade, even better handling and a shorter final drive ratio make the Fiesta ST200: a car that will make even the grumpiest driver smile.

Ford Fiesta ST200: Two-Minute Road Test

Mk1 Ford Fiesta

Ford Fiesta at 40: happy birthday to the UK’s favourite car

From one very fast and very recent Fiesta, to a very slow and very old Fiesta. We’re talking about one particular Fiesta here – SAV 188X, a 1981 Fiesta Popular in beige, which we drove on a special 40th anniversary Dagenham to Brighton run earlier this year.

Despite packing just 45hp from its 950cc engine, we smiled a lot driving this car around the M25 and down to Brighton.

Ford Fiesta at 40: happy birthday to the UK’s favourite car

Toyota GT86

Toyota GT86

Again, although the standard Toyota GT86 is brilliant, we’re talking about one particular example here. Because everyone loves retro racing decals, right? There’s a revamped GT86 on the way, and Toyota claims it’s even better the current model. If that doesn’t put a smile on your face, nothing will.

Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota GT86: 2015 twin test

Honda NSX

Honda NSX (2005)

There’s something immensely satisfying about a car that takes the fight to the supercar establishment, messes up their front lawns and drives away grinning from ear to ear. The Honda NSX is one such car and the all-new, tech-laden version has a lot to live up to.

Honda NSX: Retro Road Test

Opinion: should SUVs have reversing cameras fitted as standard?

Opinion: should SUVs have reversing cameras fitted as standard?

Opinion: should SUVs have reversing cameras fitted as standard?

The amount of safety kit fitted to modern cars is ever-increasing. From the legally-required stability control and seat belts to the more advanced collision avoidance and lane guidance systems, most of us take it for granted these days.

But there’s one feature which is only ever seen as a ‘nice to have’: the reversing camera.

Our long-term Mitsubishi Outlander is equipped with a 360-degree surround-view camera system as standard. It’s clever – but it’s only available on higher-spec models.

I recently realised I’d be really nervous reversing a car of that size, with its huge blind spots, without a camera. Yes, you could argue that I’ve simply got too used to the Outlander’s rear-view camera and we managed for years reversing cars fitted without sensors, never mind an actual camera.

But cars are getting bigger and as they’re being increasingly packed with safety kit, they’re getting harder to see out of. Gone are the thin window pillars of old.

You could be the most alert, safety-conscious driver in the world. But if there’s a small child standing behind the (silent) Mitsubishi Outlander when it’s reversing, if it’s not fitted with a camera, you haven’t got a chance.

Even on the expensive (and huge) Audi Q7, you have to spend an extra £500 for a reversing camera on lower-spec models.

I do wonder if more should be done to encourage rear-view cameras fitted as standard on certain vehicles. Or am I pandering to the nanny state?

Women, know your place: the SEAT Mii by Cosmopolitan

Women, know your place: the SEAT Mii by Cosmopolitan

Women: are you afraid of the big, bad cars that haunt the city streets? Do you cower in fear at the mere thought of getting behind the wheel of the car owned by your husband or boyfriend?

Fear no more, because SEAT has built a car for ‘active young women who are really going places’. And by ‘places’, we suspect SEAT means the shops. Or cookery classes. Or the kitchen. Step forward: the SEAT Mii by Cosmopolitan.

That’s right, ladies, if you want your time spent behind the wheel to be as ‘engaging and exciting as every other facet of [your] busy, fun and fearless’ life, this is the car for you. And no, you haven’t woken up in the 1950s.

Of course, as a woman, you know your place. And right now, SEAT hopes that place is behind the wheel of ‘a car that understands the feminine side and lifestyle of the fun and fearless Cosmo girl’.

women

This feminine side extends to the ‘eyeliner-shape’ headlights, which are ‘emphasised in the same way as make-up emphasises the eye’. Even the alloy wheels offer a ‘surprise sparkle’. It’s like reading an extract from a Boots cosmetics catalogue.

Being a woman, your macho partner might not have explained the ins and outs of a car, so this handy guide to some of the Mii’s key features might help. You’ll find a Bic ‘For Her’ in the bottom of your handbag, in case you want to make some notes.

  • Hill Hold Control: to prevent roll-back
  • Air conditioning: to keep you cool
  • Optional parking sensors: to assist with that devilishly difficult activity

This is a major leap forward for equality and, as this recent SEAT promotional film reveals, ‘the woman driver can be very good’. Indeed, the film even claims that ‘when they’re good, they’re just as good as men’.

Hard to believe, right? Just watch for men ‘wobbling about’ and be sure to keep your ‘temper when the lights go red’.

The SEAT Mii by Cosmopolitan goes on sale early next year. If you have any further questions, you’ll find us in the drawing room, talking about politics and football. You know, man’s stuff.