Clarkson on: car shopping
Amazing, isn't it. Mr Blair charges car tax, value added tax, car tax on the value added tax, tax on the petrol you put in the tank and tax from taxed income for permission to drive on the road. Then he has the gall to say that car prices are too high and that they must come down.
And the car-makers, instead of telling the silly little man to get lost, said OK.
So, with prices falling and dealers laying palm fronds at the feet of anyone who walks through the showroom door, you might think it's possible to go car shopping in a blindfold and still come home with a bargain. Sorry, but it isn't.
Yes, with the notable exception of TVR, who magnificently increased prices recently, most cars are significantly less expensive than they were this time last year. But don't be fooled into thinking that ‘less expensive' means ‘good value'. Because it doesn't.
Let's begin with the Mercedes C-class which, if you believe what's being said in the press, is some kind of second coming, a subtle blend of unburstable build quality and BMW 3-Series tail-out, gung-ho fun. Sounds good.
I called Mercedes asking if I could borrow the cheapest model in the range, the car that people would actually buy and yes, after just a hundred yards, I was impressed. It was bloody fast.
Nice try, Mercedes. Perhaps you thought I had become so fat and lazy that I'd think I was driving a base model, but I'm still professional enough to read the key fob. And it quite plainly said that under the bonnet was a 3.2-litre, six-cylinder engine which means that the car in question costs in excess of £30,000.
Cheaper than it was, for sure, but you'd have to be a complete window licker to pay this much for what is basically a rather ugly, small family saloon. I mean, for £5,000 less than that, you could have the larger, better-looking Peugeot 607. This comes with night- sensing headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, hazard warning lights that illuminate when you brake hard, a windscreen that does something strange with -sunlight, a satellite navigation system that actually knows where it's going, a -telephone, a CD-autochanger, electric seats and door mirrors that fold away when you engage the central locking.
There's probably more besides but to be perfectly honest, I didn't drive the car enough to find out.
And the reason that I only did a -hundred miles or so is that it is, without any question or shadow of a doubt, the worst car I have driven since Chrysler sent me a diesel-powered Voyager.
'It corners like a naan bread and has the get up and go of that lettuce you get with a chicken korma'
This is a car that has all the flair of an Indian restaurant. It corners like a naan bread and, thanks to the most slovenly automatic gearbox in Christendom, has the get up and go of that lettuce you get with a chicken korma.
Then there's the quality of the interior fixtures and fittings which is exactly what you'd expect on a Taiwanese toy monkey that bashes a drum when you turn it on. Incredible. A car with more features than the space shuttle and it comes in a Fisher-Price box.
I kept saying to myself, who? Who will say yes, I have worked hard and now I will not buy an E-class Mercedes or an Audi S6 or a 5-Series BMW? I shall spend twenty-five thousand of my pounds on a large Peugeot which, if I'm very lucky, will be worth 45p next year. If they can find more than four real, honest customers to buy this car in Britain, I'll eat my own knees.
Look at the problems Alfa is having with the 166. This is a truly beautiful car, a rich tapestry of cruel, brutal power and Moby-esque fluidity. If I were to be invited to a Ferrero Rocher-ambassadorial cocktail party, this is the car I'd most like to take. It is Eurotrash-fantastic all the way from Club 55 in St Tropez to the Met Bar. But even though prices start at less than £20,000, I can count on one finger the number I've seen on the road this year.
I'd like to say at this point that you're all mad, but of course, you aren't. You know that the market for secondhand big Alfas is up there with the market for secondhand Vesta chow meins.
And this is the issue. It's not how much that car prices have fallen in recent weeks. It's how much you'll get when the time comes to move onwards and upwards. By all means, get a Hyundai XG but never forget that British badge prestige killed off the Fiat Croma, the Lancia Thema and the Citroen XM. Electrical wizardry does not turn an M and S badge into some kind of S and M seductress.
And big engines don't do the trick either. Tempting though it may be in this new climate of low, low prices to buy a V12 BMW or a 3.2-litre C-class, remember that the only person who'll want it after three years is going to make it work for a living as an up-market mini cab. And do you think the bloke in the back will give a good God damn what's under the bonnet.
I think not. So, if you're planning to buy an executive car in these price- trimming times, stick to the obvious. A Merc with an engine just big enough to make it move. But no more.