James May

James May

James rounds on the Benz

When I was a lad, I had a thing about barmaids. Then again, 15 years ago, I thought of myself as a Mercedes-Benz kind of bloke. I liked the mentality behind a Benz; lots of engineering effort expended on things you couldn't immediately see or appreciate (take an old E-Class apart to see what I mean) and none of it wasted on gadgetry, flim-flam or even, in those days, a radio.

BMWs, on the other hand, were for executives and the thrusting; people who were making it happen, wearing ties and making early adoptions of electronic business tools. Any BMW made me feel like I was on my way to a conference about the future of teleconferencing, armed with documents on enabling technologies and generally pursuing excellence. As I hate business and have no acumen, I wanted nothing to do with them.

These days, though, I'm very much a BMW fan. Something happened to Mercedes in the interim, and they now strike me as a bit flashy. What's with all those shiny highlights on the fascia, for one thing? The styling seems to have become fussy, the wheels have become a bit vulgar, and if I actually knew what it meant I'd say that a Benz has become a bit chavvy.

In any case, Jeremy Clarkson has one, which means Mercedes must, at least for the moment, be excommunicated from the church of car. Those are the rules.

I like what's been happening to BMW since I've been on Top Gear. That ‘flame surface' styling that everyone got so worked up about now looks cool and modern, and the inside of a BMW has become tasteful and intelligent. I realise this is bordering on worrying about the aesthetics of hi-fi, when really it's for listening to music, but it does matter.

At times I've actually quite fancied an M3. I even had a hankering for a 1-Series. If I was the CEO of a global solutions-driven operation I'd be very happy with a long-wheelbase 7-Series. But now I've spent a week in the Z4, and I'm having a bit of a wobbly.

“The styling is fussy, the wheels a bit vulgar, and if I actually knew what it meant, I'd say that Mercedes has become a bit chavvy”

I said a BMW looks contemporary, but this one feels strangely old-fashioned. You sit pretty much in the boot, like you do in a Jag XK120, and the bonnet swells in front of you, a bit like it does in the XK120, come to think of it. It's laid out like a proper roadster, has a real gearbox and makes a good noise. One sort of reclines in the Z4, in a slightly caddish manner. The roof design is brilliant, the boot is a bit pokey... but I really couldn't care less about that. I've seriously thought about one.

Let's think a bit harder about it. I currently still have the Boxster, which I hardly use. The BMW is a bit less than the Boxster was, but as the Porker is now worth only about £25 that's a bit irrelevant.

Of more interest is the contrast. The Boxster, being a Porsche, is a bit po-faced. Everything in itis the way it is for a reason, and when I drive it and move a switch I can hear Germans asking if it was really necessary or if it could have been made even more obvious. The Boxster is trimmed in a way that covers the seats and doors, but in the BMW leather is used with an indulgent flourish.

There's very little stuff in the Boxster; in fact my Panda is better equipped, having automatic climate control and a much more comprehensive trip computer. I don't really give a rat's about equipment, but I love theBMW's iDrive upturned pie-dish thing and allthe stuff that comes up on the screen.

I still think the Boxster is, on a purely technical level, a better drive. It's very precise, the weighting of the controls is perfectly balanced, and so on and so on. The BMW feels faintly flawed by comparison, but is possibly more of an event. It's a bit muscle car, a bit point 'n' squirt, a bit of a triumph of loucheness over the pursuit of dynamic purity and the glovebox is a bit rubbish. But I like it, hugely. Should I? In blue?

No. The problem is one of trying it on. Having done it, and bothered to check my appearance in a shiny window, as you might check a new shirt in the mirror before handing over the cash, I realise I look a bit of a berk in it. I can just about get away with the Porsche because I can always claim I own it for esoteric reasons to do with driving dynamics. But the BMW puts on a bit of a show, draws attention to itself and demands to be driven by someone not in an old jumper. Sadly, that's ruled it out.

These days I like girls in glasses.


James May, Column, Mercedes, BMW

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