Clarkson on: German cars
Ever since time immemorial, the job of providing a hungry world with cars to stir the soul has fallen to Italy and Britain. But now both of us are spent forces.
Fiat is in serious financial trouble. And because Fiat owns Ferrari, Lancia, Maserati and Alfa Romeo, that means the whole Italian car industry is in serious financial trouble.
There's speculation in the buizzzziness pages that General Motors will bale the whole group out and take control. That means the next Punto will be a Corsa, the next Stilo will be an Astra and best of all, the next Alfa 156 will be a Vectra. I can hardly wait.
The story is no less awful here. Basically, Rover is down to one plant where some of the most ingenious engineers, using nothing but a socket set they got for Christmas and 40p they found down the back of a sofa, have managed to transform an ageing and un-pleasant selection of cars into some of the most exciting saloons on the market.
But let's not get carried away. Good though the MG ZS might be, there is no getting away from the fact that it's based on the Honda Civic before last. Eventually, it will have to be replaced and where's the money going to come from?
Now, I know a lot of Top Gear's younger readers will argue that Japan, with its range of four-wheel-drive Evo cars, is today's guardian of the car industry's heart and soul. But I'm afraid this is nonsense.
Where's its E-Type, its 2900B, its Daytona, its Stag? Where's its design flair? I look hard at a Subaru Impreza and I don't see a single square inch which could be called pretty, or imaginative. On an Evo VII, things are even worse. You can't see the body at all thanks to all its down-town Islamabad discount store accessories.
And have you seen the fit and finish on these cars? Once, when I did metalwork at school, I made a bookcase. But I didn't use enough sand in the mould so when it came out, it looked more like an artichoke. And even though it had more rough edges than a broken Sex Pistols single, it was still of a higher quality than the boot hinge on a Subaru.
I know it's a wonderful car to drive, but it's computers that make it so. And computers, unlike proper machinery, do not melt your heart. An iMac may look wonderful, but compare it with Brunel's bridge over the Tamar and you'll see what I mean.
"The Avantime is shiversomely awful, with doors that poke your eye out and an engine which hunts"
So what about backward Uncle Sam? I think not. The Mustang's alright but I suspect it's only in production because Ford's forgotten to stop making it. And as for everything else, no. Even the Swedes make more soulful cars.
I quite like what Renault is doing. But I'd like it a whole lot more if the cars were as good as the packaging would lead us to believe. The Avantime is shiversomely awful, with doors that poke your eye out and an engine which hunts. So, when you're sitting in traffic, with your foot resting lightly on the brake, there'll be a surge of revs and whahey... off you go.
The Vel Satis is worse, and I've never quite got the appeal of the Clio. It was the car that caused me to leave Top Gear all those years ago because I just couldn't think of anything to say about it. Be assured, with the new Top Gear programme we're planning, a car like that simply won't get on.
In fact, the French make only two good cars. The Renault Laguna which is extraordinarily handsome and very safe, and the Citroen Berlingo which, by some considerable margin, is the best family car money can buy. For £8,000, nothing even gets close.
But good though they may be, neither does what a Fiat 500 can do. Neither make you squirm with delicious agony. Neither causes your heart to beat a little bit faster. So where, fellow petrolheads, do we go for the raw emotion these days?
I've just had a couple of days with the Audi RS6 which is everything you might expect. Beautifully made. Tasteful. Efficient. There were one or two surprises, as you would expect of any car. Audi still hasn't got the ride right, and the steering is still as precise as a soggy dog blanket. Then there's the power from its twin turbo, 4.2-litre V8. All 444bhp of it.
I was expecting some serious get up and go but it really is brutally, savagely, wonder-fully, explosively, aggressively, noisily fast. Noticeably faster than an M5. And probably not that far off a Ferrari 360.
I was also mildly surprised to note that the 155mph speed limiter appeared to be broken. The needle went past 175mph like it was on steroids. In fact, the only reason it stopped climbing so heroically is because I ran out of runway.
For me, though, the biggest shock on this car is that I didn't just respect it like I respect an accountant. I liked it. And that means it must have had a heart, and a soul.
Then I thought some more. For the last 30 years, German cars have always been the same. Efficient and clinical, like dental surgeries. But look at all the cars you want today. The Mini. The Range Rover. The BMW 5-Series. The Porsche Turbo. The Mercedes-Benz SL. You still get the precision engineering, you still get the ‘now' styling but there's humanity here too.
So there you are. It's the Germans who've pick up the baton dropped by Italy and Britain. It's Germany that's making the cars we really want to buy.
I must be going soft. I didn't even laugh last month when Germany got flooded.