James May

Female in hotpants

Bum steer

We’ve had the Kyoto Summit, the Good Friday Agreement and a host of United Nations resolutions... now, for 2005, I’d like all car manufacturers to sign an international gentleman’s agreement promising to leave my bottom well alone.

I’m as liberal as the next man, but this has now gone too far. What consenting individuals get up to in the privacy of their own homes is one thing; the dead hand of a multinational directed at my tender buttocks is something else entirely and, to my mind, wholly unacceptable. Is nothing sacred any more?

Now I think about it, I realise that the world’s car makers have been showing an unhealthy interest in my plum duff for quite a long time. It started well over a decade ago with the widespread introduction of the delicious heated seat, which for years has been hailed as a great thing on a cold morning. Even my 13-year-old Range Rover is fitted with seat heaters.

But here’s a thing. It’s been shockingly cold for the few days prior to the writing of this column, and I’ve been doing quite a bit of driving. Yet at no point have I walked out of my front door into the frost and thought, ‘God in heaven, my arse is cold.’ It never is. My buttocks are the second biggest muscles on my body and therefore retain a huge amount of warmth. I have cold toes, cold fingers, a cold nose, cold ears and cold hair, but none of these things is catered for in the cabin of the car. I suppose Mercedes has made an effort of sorts with that ‘Scarftronic’ neck-warmer fitted to the new SLK, but otherwise it’s hot cross buns as usual.

It didn’t stop with the seat heater, of course. Some time in the mid Nineties, I drove the first BMW 7-Series fitted with the ‘active seat’. The base of this ‘stimulating innovation’ could be set to rock your pelvis gently from side to side, supposedly in the interests of reducing back-ache and encouraging circulation. I tried it on a long journey and it seemed to work, but I was highly uncomfortable with the idea of a German technologist called something along the lines of Jurgen fondling my chuff at a distance.

Mercedes responded with that massage seat thing, which incorporates some fans to extract the worst effects of the corporate lunch. But again, I have the feeling that Herr Doktor is taking an unhealthy interest in my tradesman’s.

So far this has been a distinctly German thing, and I suppose it could be worse. It could have been a British fascination. Then the new Aston V8 would be fitted with a couple of spring-loaded horsewhips and you’d be scouring the cabin for a suitable piece of leather to bite on. Instead, it’s the French who are now at it...

“The C4 car seat performs a drum-roll on your bum if you stray beyond the white lines of your lane” 

I’ve been driving the new Citroen C4 VTS, and I have to say there’s quite a lot I like about it. It’s a great looking car, it has a sweet motor, it steers quickly and it’s even reasonably fast. Obviously it’s a bit sporty for my tastes, but I imagine it would be great for those sorts of people who regard trainers as shoes.

What I didn’t like was the preponderance of buttons and knobs in the cabin. This sort of thing makes me nervous in a French car, since I’ve always believed the French to be generally poor at gadgetry and much better suited to pre-industrial activities such as cheese-making and erecting lavatories that don’t flush.

You may remember, if you’ve been watching the programme, that the C4 features a novel steering wheel on which the rim rotates but the middle remains stationary. As well it should, since I counted 17 buttons on it and even then I’m not sure I remembered to include the horn in that. If it went round and round as well you would be in seriously big trouble.

In fact, I was so preoccupied with the steering wheel that I completely forgot about the C4’s vibrating seat. Then I joined a motorway and the French got to work on my jacquesie.

This car is fitted with a device that senses the white lines of your motorway lane, and if you stray beyond them the seat performs a brief drum-roll on your bum. Not only that, but it’s buttock-specific. Stray right and your right cheek gets a drubbing, stray left and it’s your left side that suffers. Unless you indicate, in which case the system reasons that you fully intended to change lane and leaves your shockingly pummelled derrière mercifully alone.

It sounds like a good idea, and in many ways it is. If you’d nodded off it would wake you up, certainly. And, for the lady motorist it may be a safer and more comfortable alternative to the vibrations that are apparently to be enjoyed on the pillion seat of any V-twin Italian motorcycle. Trouble is, I’m a chap and there are times when I don’t actually need to signal to change lanes on a motorway, such as when I entered an empty contraflow in the middle of the night. Then it’s a right pain in the butt.

I can’t keep indicating for no obvious reason, or I’ll end up looking like my mate Paul, who indicates even when he’s turning out of a supermarket car-parking space. Or someone from the Institute of Advanced Motorists. Maybe you can turn the thing off using one of the buttons on the steering wheel, but at this point I was still vainly trying to re-tune the radio.

I have to say I’m disappointed. I saw the genesis of this technology years ago on something called the Prometheus Project, a sort of non-competitive multi-manufacturer initiative to develop the driving aids of the future. This gave us satnav, intelligent cruise control, head-up displays, swivelling headlights and the lane-sensing system at the core of the Citroen’s seat.

By my reckoning, all these things could be combined to allow me to join the motorway in London and then climb into the back for a kip until I arrive in Scotland. Instead, I’ve been given something to keep me awake. The motor industry has, as usual, aimed low, and humankind has been reduced to fiddling with each other’s bottoms like the apes in the trees from which we have supposedly descended.

I think these people should stop arsing around and do something useful.



James May, Column, Citroen, C4

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