Clarkson on: the Mercedes A-Class
Imagine the horror. You're a cameraman with the BBC's natural history department and you've been dispatched to Tierra del Fuego in South America, where, once every ten years, a strange frog comes out of the mud, mates, and then dies.
You've been sitting there for the best part of a decade when the need for a crap becomes utterly overwhelming. So you scoop up the bog roll, a copy of Viz and disappear behind a rock.
And while you're gone, Froggy comes out of his muddy home and struts his stuff with Mrs Frog.
Well last month, Britain's motoring journalists were on the bog while all hell was breaking loose all around.
Some had driven the Mercedes A-class and glowing reports were appearing in magazines all over the land. Autocar said it could dive through tight bends with agility. Car magazine said much the same thing, while Auto Express praised its responsive chassis.
Now I don't want to sound smug about this but after half a mile in the new baby Benz, it became very obvious that its handling was not agile and it certainly wasn't responsive. It was utterly and completely crap.
Contrary to what many may think, we road testers do get swayed by the opinions of colleagues and I found myself in a quandary. Here was a car from one of the world's most ruthlessly efficient manufacturers, a car that my colleagues liked very much.
It takes a very special kind of bombastic arrogance to be that little boy in The Emperor's New Clothes - to stand up and say: "Actually, its handling is appalling."
But thank God I did, because just a week later, a Swedish magazine found to its cost that while performing what's become known as the ‘Elk Test', the A-class rolled over and put its occupants in hospital. A German mag then repeated the procedure and subsequent examination of the film showed that what we had here was A-class One Disaster.
Experts immediately dismissed the Elk Test as unrepresentative, but I disagree.
Swerving one way, then the other, to miss an obstacle is worthwhile in any environment. Sure, we don't have elks in Britain but we do have children and dogs and debris in the outside lane of the motorway. And Mercedes agreed because first they said they'd change the tyres, then they said stability control would be fitted as standard, then they stopped the production lines. The fact is, Mercedes screwed up and our journos missed the biggest story since the Ford Pinto (see p56).
"Drive into a roundabout at a sporty, rather than aggressive pace, and understeer is colossal"
Well now it's time to wake up and smell the coffee. Drive into a roundabout at a sporty, rather than aggressive pace, and understeer is colossal. Switch direction and massive body roll attaches itself like a two-ton barnacle to a problem that shouldn't have been there in the first place. It's impossible to miss. I only feel guilty that I majored on the car's good points. But at least I spotted the flaw.
In the early days of car journalism, it was important to be on the ball because rotten and dangerous cars lumbered onto the market every week. But in recent years, the whole game has shifted. We assume a car is safe and reliable and make our judgements instead on what the badge says about the driver, value for money and so on.
Sure, not many mags can afford to do crash-testing like car companies do, but most have forgotten how to do any testing at all, other than zooming up and down with stopwatches. Thank God a little Swedish mag still does things properly.
Everyone else took it for granted that the A-class would be safe and steady and talked instead about the space inside and the fact you could park a three-pointed star on your driveway for just £14,000.
No one actually stopped to think, hold on, this is Mercedes' first ever attempt at a front-wheel-drive car. Let's assume nothing. Let's do a lane-change manoeuvre. Let's wiggle the wheel a bit to see what's what.
It doesn't matter what Mercedes do with the design of their new car now. The A-class is dead. And with it has gone the reputation of Britain's motoring journalists.
We should all be sent to Iraq, but I fear that as the F15s sweep in from Turkey to post bombs through Saddam's letterbox, we'd all be on the beach, filing copy about fine wines and nice cheese.