Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson

Clarkson on: off-roaders

Imagine how you'd feel if you'd bought a tin of custard powder, added it to water and found the resultant explosion put the entire gable end of your house in Humberside. You'd be cross if it said custard powder on what was actually a tin of fertiliser, sodium and ammonia.

And I'm sure I'd be cross if I bought a BMW X5. It looks like a big off-road car. It feels like a big off-road car. And at £45,000, it's sure as hell priced like a big off-road car. But if you go off-road in it, you'd better hope there's a stout pair of shoes in the boot for the walk home.

What normally happens when you go off-road in a big four-wheel-drive car is that when it gets stuck, you stab away at the various levers and push whatever buttons you can find on the dash until eventually it starts to move again. But in the X5, apart from a hill descent speed control, which they nicked from Land Rover, there is nothing. You may as well poke away at the heater vents. Or pick your nose.

And it's the same with Toyota's entry-level RAV4. It looks good and, with a price tag of £18,000, seems like good value. But it only has two-wheel drive.

When I asked Toyota if I could have one for a test drive, someone rang back to say: "Er... we'd love to help but we only have one on the press fleet and it's been marooned by the floods in York."

Great, so you buy an off-road car, you put up with its performance and handling shortfalls, and then when the flood of the century arrives, it gets stuck.

And Honda can stop laughing too. As you may have spotted, I've had one of these on test recently and while I can report there's plenty of space in the front, there is almost none at all underneath. The exhaust is perilously close to the road and would, for sure, be torn asunder should it ever be dragged over a sweet wrapper of some kind.The problem here is simple. Car-makers have noticed that most people with four-wheel-drive cars don't ever drive off-road. So why bother equipping them to do such a thing?

On the face of it, this seems like a sensible question, but really it's up there with ‘Why is the Moon made of cheese?'

It's like asking why anyone wants to go out to a restaurant for dinner. It's much cheaper to stay at home and suck dust mites out of the carpet. And why do vicars need churches? Surely, it would be easier to hold their religious knees-ups in a scout hut somewhere. Or the way congregations are going these days, in the vicarage cloakroom.

The computer I'm using to write this is also capable of putting me though to a Thai ladyboy in Saigon. But even though I never wish to use this facility, it's nice to know I could.

Worse. Buying an X5 or a RAV4 or an HR-V with their big, rambunctious, macho handles is like buying a computer that promises to deliver hot sex directly into your office, and then getting home to find that the best it can manage is a mocked-up Britney nipple slip.

"The computer I’m using to write this is also capable of putting me through to a Thai ladyboy in Saigon"

And it isn't just off-roaders that are failing to deliver what it says on the tin. Look at these silly mid-range people carriers that are starting to burst forth. ‘I see, so with a body shape like that, it's obvious I get a great many seats in there'. Er, no, sir, just the five.

They point out that these cars are tall but what precisely is the advantage of that? How many people do you know who drive while standing up?

It's like those targa-topped cars that were all the rage as punk gave way to the new romantics. They were sold as convertibles so you went through six finger nails and 14 Band-Aids, and after 11 hours you finally removed the roof to leave a hole the size of two bats.

They called this wind-in-the-hair motoring. They were right. There was one hair that'd get some breeze so you'd arrive everywhere with what looked like a twig sticking out of your head.

Other offenders? Well there's Vauxhall and Ford who hide behind the Union Jack while making most of their cars in Germany. And then there's Nissan who said the Micra was as English as meat pie, even though the engine, gearboxes and bodyshells were shipped in from under the rising sun.

So far as I can tell, the only British stuff on those early cars was the bog roll that the men who made them used to wipe their bottoms.

Even Ferrari has been a culprit. Back in the early '80s, it laboured under the misapprehension that the name was good enough and that the cars could handle and go like seasoned oak. Happily, it didn't take it long to figure out that this simply isn't the case.

Let me put it this way: you take a girl out and all night long, you get the come-on. But when push comes to shove, she shoves off. How many times do you think she can do that before the whole town starts to steer clear?

BMW says that its X5 is a sports activity vehicle. And they're right. It is far more sporty than any other car of this type, but then if they'd bothered to fit it with all the stuff you need for green laning, it wouldn't be.

So I guess it does do what it says on the tin. But if you read the ingredients carefully, you'll find it doesn't have any.


Jeremy Clarkson, Column

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