Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Á la Récherche des Citroens Perdus...

I think I can pinpoint the time when my fascination with the internal combustion engine started. I was about six and I had been invited to a friend’s birthday party at Dublin Zoo, which was pretty exciting in itself.

But further excitement was provided by the fact that his father would drive us there – something that I found terribly exotic because my father, a somewhat eccentric Luddite, refused to have a car.

The apogee of excitement, however, came with the car that my friend’s dad was driving. It was a black Citroen DS, sleek, futuristic, with a ride as smooth as velvet and – this was the thing that captured my imagination – it rose up when it took to the road and, in a sense, knelt down when it poured forth us very little boys at the gates of the Zoo.

The friend’s dad was, I seem to remember, an architect. He wore a bow tie and smoked what I later realised were Gitanes. The Citroen DS, with its positively space age technology and that seriously funky steering wheel, was just the car for such a bloke.

The DS came back into my life briefly in the 1970s when I used to travel around the conifer county of Surrey in a venerable sky-blue limousine version (in the front), but that’s another story

As a teenager, I coveted the Citroen-Maserati SM (we tend to forget that Citroen used to own a chunk of Maserati). Citroen did the comfort while Maserati provided the power in the form of a 2.5 litre fuel-injected engine. There was a silver one parked outside the old Royal Hibernian Hotel on Dawson Street regularly and I used to drool over it while heading to Graham O’Sullivan’s for coffee, Gitanes smoke (there’s a theme here) and angst-ridden chats with my school mates.

Citroen lost its way in more recent years. After the CX (1974-1991) and the XM (1989-2000) the brand collapsed into blandness, dubious dependability and somewhat tinny build quality. The quirky, eccentric, forthrightly Gallic originality of Citroen’s core values was lost to the likes of the Xantia (which I strongly suspect you can’t picture in your mind; I struggle to do so).

Well, times have changed and Citroen, the old Citroen spirit, is back. I drove three models recently and all of them had, for a start, a solidity and quality of build that had been conspicuously absent from the brand for yonks. I know I tend to go on about it, but when I close the driver’s door, I want to hear a certain sound. Ideally a bass-toned clunk. I got it with all three Citroens.

The new "DS" theme involves Citroen’s renewed embrace of clever, original design to give the models in question a certain extra je ne sais quoi.

First there was the DS3 Cabriolet, a sprightly little 1.6 litre petrol engined  two-door with a roof which retracts the whole way, exposing a great deal of sky above one’s noggin. I didn’t spend a lot of time in this mode, due to the Winter we have been experiencing but I can confirm that you can see a lot of sky.

Whingers have complained that you can’t see out the back window when the roof is fully retracted. I would argue that this doesn’t actually matter, provided you know how to use your wing mirrors.

The 118bhp engine is lively, with a surprising amount of oomph even from low revs and it is certainly a lot of fun to drive. On the flip side, it’s not entirely sure-footed on some of our less than smooth roads and there can be a bit of hoppity, skip and jump when cornering.

This is a small, neat car but nevertheless it gets 5 stars in Euro NCAP crash test and comes with 6 airbags.

Then I switched to the DS5 which is somewhere in the same category as the Passat or, perhaps, the Audi A5. It’s certainly stylish. Those sculpted twin exhausts look wonderful and the cabin feels very much designed as a unit rather than mixed up from standard components. It’s elegant, tactile, with hints from the aviation sector.

The 158bhp 2.0 litre diesel I drove is sprightly too and very much more than adequate to haul the fairly considerable weight. My only real gripe was the ride. It’s probably fine on the smooth roads of European neighbours. In Ireland, and especially outside the city, every bump is acutely felt and, like the DS3, there’s a slight lack of sure-footedness on tight bends where the surface is less than billiard-table smooth.

Overall, including a fair amount of motorway driving, I averaged somewhere in the high 40s in terms of mpg (I think in old money, I’m afraid.)

And then… and then came the revelation, the C4 Picasso (no DS this time) with its Tardis-like qualities. At first glance, it’s a moderately sized MPV. Quite neat, rather understated in terms of design but aerodynamic if deceptively like a normal car sitting on a booster seat.

But inside, it’s a very different story. The C4 Picasso, once you sit into it, is huge. The sense of space is almost bizarre and yet, when you drive it, it handles like the size it really is.

The 1.6 HDi engine, which I expected to struggle with all that, well, all that sense of space is more than up to the job while delivering fuel consumption, in my case at any rate, pushing into the high 60s in terms of mpg.

Being an MPV, you don’t tend to drive it like the other two cars mentioned above but, notwithstanding that, I reckon it has a lot less body roll than most MPVs and the ride is supremely comfortable.

In fact, just to make another foray into my childhood, my uncle had a Rover 3.5 P5 in 1970 and I remember sinking into the seats with a sense of luxury that was rare indeed when one’s benchmark was the Ford Anglia or the Fiat 125.

Well, sitting in to the driver’s seat in the C4 Picasso that memory came back to me. Let’s just say that I was impressed.

And I’m not the only one. The C4 Picasso is Irish Car of the Year 2014.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

VOLVO V40: Let's roll....

Volvo V40 T2 R-Design

I once had a pretty heavy Volvo habit. It started in a small way, when I fell in love at the age of 12 with the old 145. I knew enough Latin by then to know that Volvo means "I roll". You have to remember that this was 1971, a time when Volvo was relentlessly Swedish and seemed, by comparison to normal cars, to have been carved out of a single metal ingot. Solid is not an adequate word.
One of my early loves...
Hard as it may be for younger folk to understand, Volvo had a certain coolness. And then they ruined it all with the introduction of the 244 which looked like a slab with a kind of snowplough stuck on the front. Even as a child, I felt that this was the antithesis of aerodynamicism. And it was ugly.
See what they did?
But this was a mere lovers’ tiff. By the time I reached man’s estate I returned to Volvo with a vengeance. First there was a 244DL maroon saloon that nearly dislocated both of my shoulders thanks to an absence of PAS (hard to imagine these days). In time, this car gave me biceps like I’ve never had before or since.

In time, I graduated to a 240GL estate in the kind of blue favoured by the Legion of Mary. I wasn’t choosy; I just felt (and I think I still do) that God created Volvos to be estates. Saloons have never looked quite right to me.

I hope you will forgive a digression here. Speaking of the saloon/estate issue can anyone honestly say that an Audi A4 looks as good as an Audi A4 Avant? And, while we’re on the subject of Audis, just think of the A5. See what I mean? Cars that are, essentially, a big box sandwiched by two smaller boxes are struggle against all the odds to be elegant. Even the Maserati Quattroporte. Now, there’s a car I’d like to see in a “shooting brake” (nothing so utilitarian as an estate) version.

Anyway, where was I? Yes. Then there was the 240 GLT estate in silver with as many bells and whistles as you could hope for in a 1987 car; I loved it. And after a flirtation with Land Rover, it was back to Volvo, a saloon admittedly but a rather attractive 850 GLT that got me my first speeding ticket and which eventually threatened to drain my pockets dry with the fuel bill.

I’d been away from Volvo for quite a while when I sat into this bright red V40 T2 R-Design, a modestly proportioned car that is aimed, essentially, at the same part of the market as the Audi A3.
Nice. The car. Not my ghostly finger tip.
Hang on, a moment. Let’s step out of it, for a moment. The Volvo V40 is a very lovely car in appearance. It has more than a dash of the supremely elegant, almost futuristic P1800 that even those whose veins are not filled with four star unleaded will recall as the car that Simon Templar drove in The Saint. Yes, that’s how old poor Roger Moore really is.

The legendary P1800. Estate version looks a little like a Reliant Scimitar. But better.

Anyway, back inside. As soon as I did sit in, I realised that some things don’t change about Volvo. Their seats are always excellent and these ones seemed to have maximum lumbar support and a rather comforting embrace.
The V40's cabin.
Other things don’t change either, and they are not immediately obvious. Safety is every car producer’s concern these days but Volvo remains out front, well ahead of the posse. Back in 1944 when most of Europe thought about safety in terms of bombproof shelters, Volvo introduced the world’s first safety cage. They did the same with the 3-point seat belt in the year of my birth (and that’s more years ago than I care to remember, as the late Harry Moore used to say). 

When people used to dress up to show off the latest seat belt.

The innovation goes on: there was the first side air-bag in 1994 and now, invisible beneath the bonnet of the bright red V40 which I was about to drive, the world’s first pedestrian air-bag. Volvo is careful and considerate.
The world's first pedestrian air-bag.
To misquote Stephen Fry (who was speaking of a different Scandinavian car brand), “Has anyone ever said ‘Look at that lunatic in the Volvo!’”

There are still people who think that Volvos are boring, either because they last drove one when most of them actually were, or because of all this talk of safety. I mean, Lamborghini don’t talk up the safety features, do they? And even BMW tend to apply the soft pedal when rehearsing such characteristics.

It’s rather a double-edged sword. I found the combination of Volvo solidity (with all due respect to Ford, the V40 didn’t feel Focus-derived), cocoon-like cabin (as far as the driver is concerned, at any rate) and the world-leading safety features all very comforting and reassuring.

The car itself, however, looked like a little beast. Red, as I say, and given the R-Design trim which, to be brutally honest, looks a touch boy-racerish. And in a slightly aggressive style. That just seemed rather out of Volvo’s innate character. A Volvo might be a beast (remember the old T5 which used to be nicked for so many bank heists?) but in its outward demeanour it should drop only the subtlest of hints about the fact.
T5. The beast.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I liked this car. It had an essential Volvoness that spoke directly to my inner Volvo owner and it was comfortable, refined, impeccably well mannered. But, dear reader, it was a little disappointing in terms of performance.

And I don’t mean that I wanted it behave like it looked. It’s just that the 1.6 litre 120bhp petrol engine seemed, at times, to flag at the task of hauling around quite a lot of car (despite its category). It wasn’t seriously underpowered; it’s just that the performance fell a little below what would make the car feel absolutely right.

Not quite me.

I’d imagine that the diesel D3 with 148bhp would sort out that little problem and, if I were going for one of them (which is tempting in theory), I’d pass on the R-Design. I had to switch the dash display to something less games-console themed within minutes of sitting in to the car – but, to be fair, the clarity of display was first class. Other controls were, to be honest, a little fiddly at first but after a week I had the hang of them.

This is a thing I have noticed about proper, professional car writers (Sam Wollaston excepted, as always, bless him; he rarely gets down to details). They seem to whinge, to some extent, about all controls, touchscreens and what have you except those in BMW, Mercedes and Audi models. I reckon it’s because most of them have the car for only a week and don’t get used to them.
Looks quite straightforward to me.

I might well be wrong, though. The last BMW I drove was from the early noughties, the Mercedes was probably from the Berlin Wall era and the Audi was somewhere in-between.

The more anorakish amongst my few readers here may have noticed that I didn’t dwell much on the Swedish thing. Look, I know that this car is made in Belgium and I know that Volvo has trodden a complex path in terms of the automotive industry but it remains for me, at heart, Scandinavian.

It’s a personal thing. A matter of faith. Perhaps you never lose it. Perhaps I’m just a lapsed Volvo owner who will eventually embrace the faith again. I just might.

Monday, October 7, 2013


When I was a teenager a lot of my schoolfriends were ferried about in the car that was the epitome of middle-class family transport in the leafy suburbs: the vast and rugged Peugeot 504 estate which, in the days when seatbelts were effectively optional, could fit an entire under-12s rugby team.

It entered the world as far back as 1968 and morphed into the 505 to greet the 1980’s – with an even longer wheelbase in the estate. Like the Volvo 240 series of around the same time, both the 504 and 505 looked much better as estates. They seemed to have been conceived that way.

The rugged (and relatively inexpensive) theme had started, of course, with the 403 in the 1950s. The slideshows given by African missionaries in my childhood always seemed to feature one.

Anyway, it’s interesting that the 504 estate was such a family favourite way back in the ‘seventies. It was, in a sense, the precursor, by a very long way, of the MPV.

Driving the Peugeot 3008 recently, I could sense some of the old 504 in the genes. Not in the engineering or the handling, of course, but in the sheer practicality of the thing.

Now, I never got to drive a 505, the only Peugeot that I piloted in the 1970s being one of their excellent pushbikes which was nicked from outside the 1937 Reading Room in TCD. But I have had Volvo estates, various Land Rovers and a Range Rover. I like my space.

The 3008’s split tailgate was a nostalgic reminder of the Range Rover's and how we used to sit on it during picnics or even when just changing boots. The Peugeot’s version is designed to support two adults or numerous children.

And that tailgate opens to reveal a fine load space with considerate details such as hooks to stop the shopping going all over the place and a tilt-and-pull platform which can be used to give the boot a false bottom or variable height shelf. It’s immensely family-friendly.

Storage space is remarkable. Lift the armrest between driver and front-seat passenger and there’s an area capacious enough to fit a ten year old although it’s clearly not intended for that purpose. So huge is it that I can imagine losing things in it.

Rear leg room might be a little tight for me, but I’m 6 foot two inches. As for the driving position, I loved the way controls wrap around in a rather cocoon like style, properly ergonomic.

So far, so pleasing. But the real surprise was the ride quality. Apart from a conspicuous absence of pitch and roll which belies the car’s height the ride is outstandingly smooth. Even eating up hills in high gear there was a sense of being wafted.

In contrast to the VW Passat Bluemotion, another 1.6 turbodiesel, the 3008’s long-legged gearbox doesn’t need a whole lot of attention when nipping about. On the other hand, the distance between gears when shifting is quite long and at first I found sixth rather elusive.

It being a crossover and I being still an occasional 4x4 driver, it was easy to forget that the 3008 is a two-wheel-drive vehicle. However, the version I drove had a clever traction control system which was difficult to sample as I was driving it during a lengthy spell of dry weather.

However, I twiddled the appropriate knob and took it off road into one my rather hilly fields when the grass was pretty wet and put it, with some trepidation, through its paces. I have to say it was remarkably sure-footed. I’d imagine it would be pretty reassuring in snow.

The 3008 looks pretty conventional at the back while the front has one of the more extreme versions of what has been described as Peugeot’s “rictus grin”. Did it bother me? Not really, especially when I was behind it. Anyway, I like a car that doesn’t conform to the bland norm and the 3008 certainly doesn’t do that. The grin motif, I gather, is on the way out.

What we have here is an immensely practical, roomy family car. It swallowed all of my daughter’s boarding school gear and there was lots of space to spare. It was exceptionally comfortable and pretty frugal in terms of fuel consumption: I reckon I averaged over 50mpg overall and achieved over 60+ mpg when driving fairly gently in the country.

Overall? It’s impressive. So impressive, indeed, that I would seriously consider driving a Peugeot 3008 on a more permanent basis.

The car I drove was:
Peugeot 3008 Active 1.6 HDi 6-speed with Grip Control
(Equipped with 16” Mud & Snow tyres, as standard, when fitted with Grip Control)
RRSP: From €26,275 plus delivery + metallic
CO2: 125g/km – Tax band B1 @ €270 per annum
Mixed Consumption: 4.8 litres / 100km (59MPG)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


My collection of neckwear is sparse. I suppose I wear a tie, at most, once or twice a month but, perhaps due to having a paucity of things to worry about, I have strong views about them.

Many years ago, I was an assistant master at a public school where I spent an inordinate amount of time telling boys to do up their top shirt button and adjust their ties accordingly. I applied myself to this rather unenviable task with remarkable vehemence, which was odd in that I was a rather subversive member of staff. The sight of an undone top shirt button and loose tie simply hurt my eye, and it still does. If you’re going to wear a tie, for heaven’s sake wear the bloody thing properly.

I was reminded of this, and inspired to write the above paragraphs in my most Sir Bufton Tufton-ish style, when watching the Channel 4 documentary, Educating Yorkshire.

It features daily life, as seen through the highly selective and distorting prism of reality television, at Thornhill Academy, a secondary school in a pretty deprived part of northern England.

The headmaster, Mr Mitchell, who looks like a retired rugby international, has a thing about uniform as part of discipline. It was pretty galling, then, to see this head teacher lecture his charges about wearing ties while himself breaking my top button rule.

But, what was worse was the head’s stubble. Look, when you are at work, you need to shave every day or grow a beard. It’s a bit like the tie thing. Wear the stupid thing, or don’t.

So far, so trivial perhaps. I suspect that some of the officers who served in the Libyan desert during World War II, to take a random example of work-time mores, may have occasionally undone their top button and failed to shave regularly. Without losing control of their men.

But, what worried me about Mr Mitchell was his approach to bullying.

The school has a zero tolerance approach to physical violence – which sounds, at first, to be highly commendable. However, as anyone who has ever dealt with adolescents in a school environment will tell you, life with teenagers is not simple enough to admit of such a crude policy.

Ill-behaved pupils appeared to receive oceans of indulgence from Mr Mitchell whose motto was clearly “girls will be girls” (no doubt some of the boys are equally delinquent but, one imagines, the girls are more telegenic).

Twinkly-eyed and kindly with the troublemakers, Mr Mitchell seemed to reserve his sternest demeanour for a boy, Jac-Henry, who was clearly the victim of taunting, name-calling and non-physical bullying; (he and his friends are, it appears, quiet and studious; “I wouldn’t want to be one them”, said the naughtiest of the girls.)

Jac-Henry, like any healthy teenager, reacted to this treatment by lashing out on a number of occasions but without causing injury, let alone GBH. One of the recipients of his spontaneous wrath, a girl, was asked if she had “stamped on his head?” “I dunno,” she said. “I mira done…”

Jac-Henry was, variously, put in the school’s isolation unit (should schools have “isolation units”?), suspended, and given counselling which convinced him that he has serious anger management problems which could mar his future life.

Jac-Henry comes across as a thoughtful, intelligent and polite boy. His tormentors would appear to be anything but.

He was failed by his school because of its one-size-fits-all approach to bullying, and I have no doubt he ended up angrier than ever. It’s nothing as to the anger I felt on his behalf as I watched his headmaster, now something of a minor education celeb and shaving more frequently, indulging the little beasts (sorry, misguided and disadvantaged pupils) who, one is pretty sure, were making Jac-Henry’s life miserable.

Mr Mitchell’s application of the zero tolerance policy had the robotic quality of a call centre in the face of a complex, human situation.

Of course, we must remember that television is not omniscient and that being headmaster at Thornhill Academy is anything but an easy job. But this episode of Educating Yorkshire suggested that having a policy on bullying doesn’t equate to tackling the actual problem.

Because of the nature of much of the English state school system the children, now aged sixteen, have gone on to “college” to complete their secondary education. Jac-Henry wants to be a counsellor and he is still best mates with Brandon, the boy who pointed out, in a moment of blinding clarity, that school was victimising him because he was being bullied.

And Jac-Henry would appear to be as polite, decent and as considerate as ever. I just hope that his former school might learn from him.

You can watch the relevant episode of Educating Yorkshire here: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/educating-yorkshire/4od