Clarkson on: machines
Three days ago, it was pouring with rain in New York. Yesterday, it was the height of summer in Los Angeles and now it's the middle of winter in New Zealand. Also, after spending Wednesday on the beach in Tahiti, Thursday went missing. Five hours from now I'll be in Sydney and tomorrow morning, having done some shopping in Singapore, I'll be back where I started five days earlier, in London.
Welcome, then, to the wonderful world of the jet engine. It is an incredible invention, partly because of the power and remarkable economy - a 747 uses less fuel per mile per passenger than a Ford Fiesta - but also because of the reliability.
Do you know how many people were killed in plane crashes on British airlines between 1990 and 1999 on 700,000 flights? None. Not one. Not a single death in an entire decade. Not even a light wound. Not even a broken follicle. Your trousers are more dangerous. So is your can opener and your wheely bin.
On the flight from Los Angeles to Tahiti, I never once thought, "what would happen if something went wrong?" Because nothing ever does go wrong. The jet was going to land, then it was going to take off again and it will land and take off every day of its life until eventually, it's bought by the Angolans. Where it will continue to land and take off and land. Until it's stolen.
Cars, judging by the mail that thumps through my letterbox every day, are rather different. Cars are as reliable as a West African dictatorship, as dependable as a four-year-old child. If you tried to drive a car round the world, you'd be lucky to reach Ashford before something went wrong.
Unless it's an Audi, of course, or a Lexus. Audis and Lexuses are the jets of the road-going world, as predictable as oak. I know this because... well, because I know. I think. And therein lies the biggest problem of all with cars. It is impossible to say, for sure, that one make of car will be reliable and one will not. Oh sure, there are plenty of surveys but all that these can give you are odds. And what good's that? Knowing that 82 per cent of Volkswagens gave their owners no trouble in the first four months of ownership is of cold comfort if yours is parked at the side of the M20 with flames billowing out of the engine bay.
My friend Richard Littlejohn, The Sun columnist, bought his son a Golf assuming it would be reliable but it wasn't. And the dealer didn't know what had gone wrong - engine or computer. "We'll try fitting a new computer first," he said, "and if that doesn't work, we'll fit a new engine." Great. The car's now, apparently, at the bottom of the Cam, and Littlejohn junior has a Mini. A good idea? Well according to JD Power in America, no, not really. But so far it's run faultlessly. You may feel it's wise to turn to the long-term tests in car magazines for guidance. Well frankly, you may as well ask a rabbit. I saw one in another magazine and couldn't believe it. The author said he'd specced up his Volvo XC90 because that's what XC90 owners will do.
No it isn't. It's what you do when you're not paying for the damn thing. I bought my XC90 and fitted it with the square root of bugger all. As a result, no satnav slides out of the dash and the only way of getting air through the windows is to break them. People wonder why it's so cheap, compared with the X5. Well, unlike those who run them as long-term ‘test cars' I can give you the answer: it's equipped like a 17th century barn.
"Audis and Lexuses are the jets of the road-going world, as predictable as oak"
I have, I admit, just finished running a long-term Range Rover, and apart from an intermittent fault with the electric motor that moves the steering wheel up and down, it's been perfect. What does that tell us? That Land Rover can't even make reliable faults? No. That this was a well made car. But then they knew all along that it would be a press car so who's to say it wasn't made with extra special care? What I can tell you is, it's an astonishingly nice car to live with. But then I would say that, I hear you say, because Land Rover gave you one, you lucky bastard.
By way of an answer, I can tell you that the BMW satellite navigation is enough to drive a man to drink. It absolutely never, ever works and the woman with the incorrect advice cannot be turned off. She just goes on and on and on. ‘If possible, make a U-turn. If possible, make a U-turn. If possible, make a U-turn.' Countries have been bombed for being less annoying than this.
So what about my Mercedes? Well it doesn't go wrong much, which is a good thing because each time I deal with any Mercedes dealer, I get a few more grey hairs and a little more spittle round the corners of my mouth. Does this mean all Merc dealers are bad? No, says Anne Robinson's drinking half. There's an outfit in Cheltenham which is brilliant. Great, but not much use if you live in Louth.
The Lotus? Well I don't drive it much, partly because it's my wife's and partly because every time I look out of the window it's being loaded on to a truck and taken back to Norfolk. Sometimes this is because of accident damage but last time it was because pink stuff flooded out of the front and went all over the windscreen. It was away for ages.
In fact, I only have one totally reliable car. The Ford Focus. It's only a five-door 1.6 but it never goes wrong. The dealer picks it up when it needs a service and even remembers to bring it back again. But I wouldn't dream of saying you should all rush out and buy a Focus because it won't break down. The fact is, it might.
Let me put it this way. I met a man with an Alfa Romeo 156 the other day. He'd had it five years and claimed (he looked normal, with no twitches or anything) that it had been perfectly reliable. Is he lucky, or is that normal? How do we know? We suspect Alfas have a lot of hissy fits but we have no proof. All we know is that cars still break down far too often and that there is simply no excuse for it. When was the last time, for instance, you heard a jet engine maker say, ‘Well you know, they're complicated things. They're bound to go wrong occasionally.'
This article was first published in October 2003.