Rob’s back on PetrolBlog. It would have been earlier, had I not missed the email Rob kindly sent to me on Friday evening. Sorry Rob.
As I overtook the seventh car in a nine car queue, looking well ahead round the open right bend I noted that the lead car was a Toyota RAV 4 being driven astoundingly slowly. None of the other cars made a move to overtake, seemingly quite content to sit behind. True, it was snowing but not heavily and the tarmac didn’t feel at all slippery.
That’s the difference with great steering. You can tell what’s happening and drive confidently to the conditions.
At this point in any American TV show you’d see my car suddenly lose control, perhaps glancing off one or more of the other cars in the tailback before disappearing through a hedge, leaping a fence and/or doing a half somersault before landing on the roof and probably exploding in a massive special effect pyrotechnic. But this was real life. A real car on a real A-road in real snow in the real darkness, so we carried on regardless.
This is the sort of journey where the faults in a car show up with some intensity; vague steering, a sense of insecurity about the handling or roadholding, poor traction, over-hard suspension. Any one can make a long drive on unfamiliar roads tiring and hard work.
This night though, was great.
Sitting in climate-controlled warmth with a useful warning light on the dash reminding me, (as if the wipers and headlights weren’t enough), that it was snowing outside, but not actually freezing yet. The automatic rain-sensing wipers metered themselves carefully, changing tempo as conditions demanded, letting the driver concentrate on driving.
The quality CD/Radio was playing some mellow music, not designed to distract from the business of the journey. Measuring apexes by eye and experience, judging the severity of curves, watching for oncoming lights in the darkness.
Cruise control was relegated to the ‘off’ setting. This was not the time or place to let the computers maintain the speed. We were driving on real roads, with bends, yumps, junctions and overtaking opportunities. In any case we were making excellent time, the car and I.
We completed the overtaking manoeuvre with about quarter of a mile to reduce speed before the next roundabout, which was despatched with an exuberant apexing and acceleration out towards the next stretch of twisty A-road.
This journey had started around ninety minutes earlier in clear conditions, albeit with dusk falling. It was a night when I couldn’t be bothered driving and if there had been an alternative route involving a motorway I’d probably have taken it. But it was one of those times when the car and the journey inspire your spirit, delivering you to your destination with a sense of deep satisfaction. No hairy moments, no near misses, no instances of poor judgement. Instead a sensibly fast controlled mission with the car seemingly joining you in the quest.
The early stretches of the route were nibbly, square cornered country roads, festooned in Gatsos. No joy to be had there, other than catching, passing and losing a Peugeot 1007. You know the one – the mini greenhouse with the sliding doors.
Further on we gradually gained on a couple of chavs in a Fiat Punto. Again they were passed and disappeared inexorably behind. The journey began to get interesting. The Gatsos fell away from the longest part of the route and we were free, me and the car. Free to choose our desired speed and route. And then it started to snow.
As the minutes ticked by in a rhythmic stream of bends, villages, bends, hills, bends and valleys I realised how much the car was providing confidence and comfort. Sure, there was a fair bit of road noise but that’s the only significant criticism. As long as there were 1500 or more RPM showing on the tacho, the torque was sufficient to make good progress. No point in revving it out – this was no Civic Type R, all screaming revs and effort.
Roadholding was sure and secure. Handling was great – predictable, fun, precise but not ever lairy. The seat was comfortable with sufficient side support to hold one in place under the cornering forces. The controls were where you’d expect them to be. Nothing jarred.
Arriving at the inevitable motorway came as a disappointment, but we settled in for the last thirty miles home. Cruise control set. Settle back, steer, keep the concentration up and arrive home in less time than normal for the journey.
As the ticking car relaxed on the driveway, its quest for this evening confidently completed, I marvelled at how competent cars have become since I started driving in the mid-1980s. Years ago a journey like this would have been this satisfying only in a carefully constructed luxury sports car. A Porsche 944 perhaps. Maybe a 6-cylinder BMW 5-series; the 3-series would have been too twitchy to provide this much ease in the conditions.
So, what luxury sports car was I driving that night?
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the 2006 Ford Mondeo TDCi hatchback. Possibly the finest all-round car so far. Oh, and we averaged 44mpg too, me and the car.