You are here
Clarkson on: boring modern cars
Every couple of months, I sit down with the internet and decide which cars I’d like to road test in the coming weeks. It used to be fun. But it isn’t any more. Because these days, as I look down the long list of all that’s new from the world of motoring, I usually think “I don’t want to drive any of this stuff.”
Mitsubishi’s new plug-in hybrid Outlander. Yes? No, actually. I realise, of course, that this is the future and that it features many new innovations designed to harness energy from waste by-products and turn them into speed and comfort, but I’m afraid I can’t be bothered to be interested in any of it.
I felt much the same about the new Mini Cooper. Partly this is because it looked like the old Mini Cooper, but mostly it’s because it has a three-cylinder engine and therefore the get-up-and-go of a dining table. My diary says that this morning, a four-wheel-drive Suzuki of some kind is being delivered for my appraisal. But when the doorbell rings, I may hide behind the curtains and pretend to be out because, honestly, I’d rather use a taxi. Oh, I’m sure it’ll be very nice, but I can guarantee that it will be about as exciting as a lecture on BitTorrents.
In fact, I’ve done a bit of thinking, and I reckon that there has never been a time in automotive history when cars have been this boring. The Audi Q3 is a case in point. The BMW X3 is another.
You may scoff at this. You may say that in my youth, we had the Austin Allegro and the Morris Marina and that they were far more boring than anything made today. But this isn’t so. They were not boring. They were terrible. Amusingly terrible.
Then there was the Hillman Avenger, another dreadful car. But let’s not forget that there was a model called the Tiger, which had a boot spoiler and a matte black bonnet and excellent sculptured mirrors on the wings and minilite wheels. It was also dreadful but it looked fabulous, and here’s the thing: where’s the Tiger version of the Audi Q3? All you get is the RS version, which works only because the increased power means you get the journey over with more quickly.
Ford was always good at producing one interesting car from each of its model ranges, and there can be no doubt that the Fiesta ST is a fitting tribute to the XR2s and the Mexicos and the Lotus Cortinas from the company’s past. It’s a little gem, that car.
But where’s the hot Mondeo? Where’s the Ka with a matte black bonnet and wing mirrors? Why is there no Focus Cosworth with four-wheel drive and 300 horsepower?
Then you have Volkswagen. It talked of making an Up GT, and I was very excited about that. It would be the Hillman Avenger Tiger of the modern age. But now VW’s announced that… drum roll… it can’t be bothered. It’ll be sticking with the three-cylinder, non-turbo base car. Which is very good and very sensible and very economical and very well made. I admire it in many ways. But I don’t actually want one.
Of course, carmakers will explain that in these modern, difficult times, it is simply not financially viable to go to all the bother and expense of making an interesting car, because all people want is four wheels, a seat and 65mpg.
But it has always been thus. Hillman went to the bother and expense of making that Tiger, and it wasn’t exactly a ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ sales success. It was much the same with the droop snoot Vauxhall Firenza or the Opel Manta GT.
Even the more mainstream offerings, such as the Ford Escort XR3i, only ever accounted for 15 per cent of total Escort sales. But the XR3i and the Golf GTi and the Vauxhall Astra GTE did something more important. They made the owners of the GLs and the 1.3s feel better.
And there was more. They were realisable dreams for the masses. In the days before EuroMillions and scratch cards, there was no way a shopkeeper from Warrington was ever going to afford a Ferrari or a Lamborghini. But a hot Ford? He could buy the 1.1 L now on the basis that, one day, with a fair wind and a bit of scrimping, the XR3 might be possible. And that made it so much more than a humdrum Ford with a 1.6-litre engine and a spoiler. It made it a dream car for millions.
Which, of course, brings me on to Netflix, the one-stop shop if you have a craving on a Sunday afternoon to watch The Rock or Air Force One. As a wise man said on Twitter recently, browsing through the movies it offers to subscribers is like browsing through the shelves of a Stockport video rental shop in 1994.
If you want to watch Gravity or the Dallas Buyers Club, then you are faced with a choice. Download it now from wherever or wait until 2026 when it will be available on Netflix. Unless there is a legal hiccup over rights in the meantime. Which there probably will be. So why then, if Netflix’s movie selection is so weak, do I subscribe? Why do you subscribe? Why is it so popular? There’s no sport. No news. Just a lot of stuff you’ve seen already. Ah yes. But there is also House of Cards.
This was made especially for Netflix, and it cost an absolute bleeding fortune. They hired Kevin Spacey to play the lead and the word is he trousered many millions for the deal. They had Robin Wright as well, which is why I tuned in. This was a lavish deal, and if you wanted to see it, and you did because it was superb, you had to have Netflix.
After two series (or seasons, if you want to sound American), it finished. So then they started Orange Is the New Black, which is also fabulous. Especially if you are fond of all things sapphic. It’s set in a women’s prison and, er… well, let me put it this way: watch a trailer, and then you’ll be a Netflix subscriber as well.
It’s ballsy stuff this, commissioning very expensive television drama. Because what if it doesn’t work? That’s not the end of the world if you are the BBC or ITV, because you have sports and news and panel shows as well. But if you are Netflix, it must work. Because, realistically, it’s all you’ve got. It’s your hook, your bait, your float, your line, your rod and your reel. Like I said, it’s a ballsy strategy, and Netflix is pulling it off big time.
The car firms should take note, because an endless array of cars which look like the sort of thing Walter White or Dexter might use will one day result in everyone taking the bus instead. We need interesting cars to keep us interested. They don’t need to be fast, because that might be passé. But they do need to make us look twice. We need a return to the days of the Tiger.
Carmakers need to remember not only Orange Is The New Black. But also that orange is the new black. Apart from the bonnet obviously. And the door mirrors.