Friday, May 26, 2006

Y#26: Small, Light and Fun

It seems I’m not the only one interested in small, lightweight, fun cars. Evo recently hosted a letter of the month from a chap proposing just such a thing, while in the same issue (091) Gordon Murray complained in his column about all the new generation vehicles at this year’s Geneva Motorshow being bigger and heavier than their predecessors.

Hywel Thomas, the Evo reader in question, would ideally love G Murray to step up and design a 650kg car, with 120bhp and uncomplicated maintenance. The tricky bit is getting it to cost less than £10,000 – but if John Jostins can produced a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle for that amount of money, then I guess anything’s possible!

The “Evo Car Co” is an interesting concept. Having said that, I don’t know whether it’s my age – I’m only 26! – or my over-active imagination, but at the moment I don’t even feel the need to be that exotic. What with the evermore draconian enforcement of the speed limit becoming increasingly a process of psychological warfare (a tired and tested tactic; speed practically is a social faux par now), my driving priorities are currently more concerned with maximising enjoyment within the speed limit rather than exceeding it.

Many of my coursemates will probably find this anathema. For some of them, driving as fast as they can is a particular thrill of choice – they’re fine drivers, and I’m not making any judgement over that; in fact, I find it a little weird – in that I used to be absolutely the same, and at the moment I’m…not that bothered about absolute speed and progress. Perhaps it’s just that life has a habit of catching up with you, regardless of how quickly you’re travelling.

Maybe I’ll get like that again once I’m out of Coventry – who knows? But for now I’m more or less content within the law, be that in the city, on the motorway, or out “thrashing” the country lanes…

Sugar. I can see people taking this the wrong way. I had better explain myself before I get accused of degenerating into some kind of safer roads campaign miasma…

The thing is – and I’m entirely serious about this, although there are other factors – I’ve been driving someone’s Citroen Saxo rather a lot lately. An R-plate, 1.1 litre SX, with nearly 90,000 miles on the clock and quite a few battlescars to prove it. Might fetch 800 quid if it was cleaned up – er, if you’re optimistic. But this is motoring in a very pure form – power-assisted steering, electric windows, and a set of wheeltrims from Halfords are about its only luxuries. Nothing you don’t need – but realistically enough.

You’re still not getting it, are you? Well, you probably haven’t driven one. But you probably have noticed how popular the Saxo is with the baseball-hatted set. Ok, so we’re talking microwaved versions, warmed-over performance, alloys and a bodyit, but it isn’t just the looks making these small Citroen’s popular – if the level of enjoyment I’m getting from the smallest engine in the range is anything to go by, the VTR and VTS must be seriously entertaining.

Driving the 1.1 feels to me almost like sampling another era, when tyres were skinny, power levels modest, and brakes were crap. It does have all the build integrity of a biscuit tin, but you can feel exactly what’s going on and it’s properly entertaining – in a modest sort of way. No doubt it helps that the exhaust is blowing, giving the Saxo a slightly rorty engine note. It doesn’t seem to matter that overtaking the vehicle in front is less a way of life than a lottery win. The little Citroen just makes me content.

But perhaps I’m spoilt. The roads in this part of the word are not only sufficiently twisty, they’re also remarkably traffic-free as well – I suppose that’s also like other-era motoring. It helps that in the direction of Leicester most of the traffic uses the M69 – leaving all the little stuff to me and the one other guy caning along in his little white van. Overtaking thrust stops being an issue, and I can just concentrate on not losing speed on the corners. It’s an entirely different kind of driving experience, as instead of ten-tenths aggression (the Saxo is, after all, only really capable of about six…) the trick is to be as smooth and friction free as possible. I don’t get stressed when I’m driving it, and I don’t care what other people think.

That’s a pretty neat trick. The other thing that’s great about it – of course – is the fuel economy. I swear this is at least partial psychological, though, as there is just something horribly wrong with a car that swallows 60 quid’s worth of petrol without getting heartburn. The Citroen is brimmed on 35 – a far more pleasing number, I seem to find!

So, should the BMW have bitten the dust, will I be looking to replace it with something small and French? Erm, not likely, no – the Saxo is an entirely adequate and fun little car. But it just isn’t special enough. And paradoxically, may well end up being too expensive, or not quite expensive enough…

Tune in again for more irreverent small car nonsense. Coming soon!


R#23: The Simple Life [internal]

Picture is of a 1.1 SX...from the Euro Ncap site.


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