James May

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James May on: trip computers

Jeremy Clarkson, in his more facile moments, has often said that if he finds one thing he doesn’t like in a car, then he can’t recommend it.

I’d like to give this a more modern, positive spin and say that if a car has one outstanding feature, you might as well buy it straight away. Don’t even request the brochure. Just have a blue one.

Some well-worn chestnuts. The Porsche 911 - any Porsche 911, in fact – has a unique handling trait that sometimes manifests itself as a faint pattering sensation through the steering. Strictly speaking, it must be a fault, but it’s so peculiar to that car, and so pleasing, that it makes 911 ownership like the password to a secret fraternity.

Never mind that the engine is so idiotically positioned that it might as well be in another car, or that the rear wiper is an option, even though it’s absolutely essential. Feel that steering wheel and revel in the sense of belonging.

The Lamborghini Aventador, as demonstrated in the last series, can produce a ghostly blue ignis fatuus from its tailpipe. Never mind that it’s still too wide, too heavy and too expensive, or that you can actually produce a similar effect much more reasonably with a gas-fuelled fag lighter and an empty crisp bag down the pub,* or that you can’t even see it happening when you’re driving. The knowledge that your car is farting at drivers you’ve just overtaken makes it all worthwhile. This time, though, have the orange one.

But these are slightly esoteric examples. Let’s move on to something a bit more prosaic. Now, one of the most alarming experiences open to motoring kind is that moment when you put your hand through the spokes of the steering wheel to reset the trip meter, only to realise that you’re actually in a corner… and it’s starting to straighten out.

Decades ago, there was a good reason the reset button was a tiny proboscis sticking out of the speedo. It was a mechanical device, acting on the drum of the counter through a small gearwheel. But once odometers went electronic, that button could be anywhere. In fairness, it often is – on the end of a stalk, maybe. But it’s still quite small.

So I’d like to commend to you, with all the passion still present in my breast, a Hyundai i20 diesel like the one I hired in France recently. It is available in blue. Why? Because the trip reset button is not in the instrument binnacle. Neither is it on a stalk, nor buried within a trip computer. It’s a massive button on the fascia, with the word ‘trip’ writ large upon it like a roadsign that’s come through the window.

We’ve talked before, in the so-called news, about the value of crucial functions being assigned to big and obvious buttons. Turning off the satnav is the obvious one. Killing the tiresome b****** in the box should definitely be a one-touch operation, especially when you know you’ve turned off the main road because you wanted to buy some petrol and crisps and of course you’re going to make a legal U-turn in a minute… yes, alright, alright, shut the hell up.

Trip reset is another good one. There I was, staying in an old and remote farmhouse in France, and I needed to go to the nearest town, some 20km away, for some more milk – the very reason I don’t live in the countryside.

Finding the town was easy, because it was big, on a hill, and I could see it. But finding the farmhouse, down a series of tiny winding tracks, meant memorising 3.8km of this bit, then left for 2.4km of gravel, then right and lots of bends for 4.1km, and so on.

There were six trip resets in the return journey, and putting my arm through the steering wheel would have caused a ditch incident at some point. It was great to be able to simply throw a punch somewhere at the dash to get 00.0. To be honest, the button is so big you could headbutt your way to navigational satisfaction.

Someone has actually thought about this properly, just as someone thought properly about the rear seats in the Volvo XC90. It bodes well for the rest of the car, surely? It’s just a shame that everything else about the i20 is a bit dreary.

Still, most people I meet these days tell me that a car is just something you use for getting from A to B. A is a piece of cake, because you’re already there, but B can be tricky. Hyundai can help you.

James May, Column