VITAL STATISTICS - Jeremy Clarkson
Model: Renault Mégane Renaultsport 225
Engine type: Four-cylinder, 1998cc
Power/torque: 225bhp @ 5500rpm 223 lb ft @ 3000rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Suspension: (front) MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar (rear) Torsion
beam, coil springs
Tyres: 225/40 R18
Fuel: 32.1mpg (combined) CO2 209g/km
Insurance: Group 17
Acceleration: 0-62mph: 6.5sec
Top speed: 147mph
Verdict: Looks good, goes fast, but misses the point
Subaru Legacy Outback
Camouflage for the famous
Ask anyone who is truly, properly famous and they’ll tell you that the single greatest gift
God gave to man was anonymity. The ability to walk into a restaurant without being
pointed at. The comfort blanket of being able to make a phone call safe in the knowledge
that nobody else is listening — because nobody else cares about what you have to say.
Anonymity? Ask Harrison Ford, or Madonna, or John Ketley, and they’ll tell you that it’s
more precious than two functioning lungs.
Oh, you see all those silly, half-naked soap stars desperately trying to attract the attention
of the paparazzi outside two-bit PR puff parties. But if they were to really make it, if they
really were to become a household name with a household face and a household love life,
if we really were to find out what they have for their elevenses and where they are every
minute of every single day, and what text messages are stored on their mobile phone,
they’d go absolutely mental.
I’m not famous, but I do appear on the television from time to time, and that’s enough to
make my life difficult on occasion. Chiefly because sometimes I forget myself and I think I
Last year I was shown to my hotel room in Dubai by a porter who, when he’d shown me
how the door worked and explained what the bath was for, asked: “Do you think I could
have your signature?”
“Sure,” I replied, with a huge grin. So, snatching up a piece of hotel notepaper, I wrote:
“To Ahmed, with lots of love, from Jeremy Clarkson.”
“No,” he said with a puzzled face. “I mean do you think I could I please have your
signature on the registration form.”
This year the same sort of thing happened again. I was lying on a sun lounger, generally
taking in some Caribbean rays, when I noticed the telltale glint of a paparazzi lens in the
bushes. Angrily, I threw down my book and stomped over to express my displeasure.
Sadly, it was a wasted journey because when I’d finished shouting, the poor guy explained
he hadn’t a clue who I was and had been photographing someone called Alex Best, whose
bikini top had slipped down a little.
And there you have it. This girl was apparently married to a footballer and then lived in a
jungle. And that’s enough to make the positioning of her swimsuit interesting. Can she
possibly have been ready for that?
Can any one of these Madonna wannabes imagine what it would be like to be
photographed every single time they walk out of the house, and how they would cope
when the assistant in the local knicker shop telephones the newspapers to tell them what
colour bra they’ve just bought?
Only last week I was having a serious heart-to-heart with a friend, when quite out of the
blue a brassy woman with metal hair marched up to me and asked what I thought of the
Honda CRV. And like I said, I’m not famous.
If you want a sense of how it feels to be well known, try walking into your local bistro
naked. Or go to work tomorrow dressed as a trout. Or better still, buy yourself a Porsche
It’s finished in Human League white and has red wheels. It says GT3RS in foot-high letters
down the door. And it has a spoiler the size of a hospital stretcher.
As a result, everyone tries to come alongside so they can point and stare. And worse,
complete strangers stroll over in petrol stations, and won’t go away even when you put the
nozzle down their trousers and produce a match.
There are many reasons why you wouldn’t want this car. A steering wheel that has nothing
to do with your direction of travel. A roll cage where the back seats should be. And a ride
quality that . . . well, put it this way — I doubt it would make a suitable platform for
disarming a nuclear weapon. Or getting a tattoo. But the worst thing about it is the never-
ending attention it draws.
Which brings me on to the world’s best antidote to fame — the £26,500 Subaru Legacy
Outback Estate. Russell Crowe could drive through the middle of Pontefract in this car and
nobody would notice, even if he were naked at the wheel. You could impale Uma
Thurman’s head on the radio aerial and that wouldn’t do the trick either.
It’s so invisible that you could almost certainly drive it into the vault at the Bank of
England and steal all the gold. And speed cameras? Help yourself, because the Outback
makes the F-117 stealth fighter look like a pterodactyl.
Then there’s the quality. In the past couple of years I’ve noticed a distinct downturn in the
robustness of virtually all cars. Mercedes used to be a byword for durability but now it’s a
byword for being on the hard shoulder at four in the morning with steam coming out of the
bonnet. And Volkswagen has suffered, too, coming near the bottom in the Top Gear
customer satisfaction survey.
Toyota used to employ a man to ensure the switches all made the right sort of click when
you pushed them, but judging by my recent experiences, I think he may have left. And
then there’s the new Volvo V50, which feels like it’s running on suspension made from tin
The Outback, though, is different. When you shut the door it makes exactly the same noise
as a dead pheasant hitting the ground at 40mph, a sort of muffled, autumnal “bumph”
sound. And the quality of the material used on the dashboard is up there with Sabatier.
Of course, in recent years Subarus have become famous for going through woods at high
speed, spewing stones into the faces of men in bobble hats.
The Legacy, however, is far removed from all of this. The top of the range 3 litre version
does 0-60 in a whisper-quiet but rather pedestrian 8.1sec and is all out of ideas at a near-
This then, is more a Subaru of the old school. Let’s not forget that when these funny cars
with their flat-four engines and four-wheel drive started arriving in Britain they weren’t
sold through plate-glass and rubber-plant dealerships. No, they were sold to country folk
by agricultural supply centres.
That’s why on the Legacy’s door panel there is a sticker explaining its four-wheel-drive
layout. To remind you that under the invisible, Teflon-tough skin, it’s still a tractor.
There’s been a rash of new estate cars in the past few months. Jaguar has whacked a
greenhouse onto the back of its X-type, Volvo has the aforementioned V50, and we
mustn’t forget the old hands from Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW.
Think of this lot as holiday destinations. You’ve got all the obvious ones such as Minorca
and Florida, plus a couple of new choices like Costa Rica and Rwanda. Well, the Subaru is
like Croatia, you see: you wouldn’t normally even consider it, but those who do so keep
returning there year after year.
I must say I was deeply impressed. It was smooth, quiet, dignified and it had quite the
largest sunshine roof I’ve ever seen. Certainly, if you ever tire of it as a car, you could use
it as a hangar for your helicopter.
More than this, however, I enjoyed the way it dealt so easily with any kind of road surface.
The slightly raised suspension meant that the car’s underside was high enough to miss the
boulders on rutted lanes, but not so high that on twisting A-roads it felt like I was in a boat.
I really was enjoying this car, right up to the moment when I completely lost it in the long-
term car park at Birmingham airport.
This was one of those times when anonymity doesn’t work for you. Another, of course, is
when you want a table at the Ivy.
Model: Subaru Legacy Outback
Engine type: Six-cylinder, horizontally opposed, 3000cc
Power: 245bhp @ 6600rpm
Torque: 219 lb ft @ 4200rpm
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, four-wheel-drive
Top speed: 139mph
Acceleration: 0-60mph: 8.1sec
Tyres: 215/55R 17
Suspension: (Front) MacPherson strut with anti-roll bar (rear) multilink with anti-
roll bar and self levelling
Verdict: Dignified, top quality and so understated it's almost invisible
Skoda Fabia VRS
Johnny Foreigner will love running our red lights in this
Multiculturalism, it has been decided, is a good thing, and consequently, we’re all
supposed to crave a beef-stew existence, living cheek by jowl with the celery, the carrots
and the swedes.
I’m not sure people in the provinces are quite so enamoured of the idea, but certainly
people in London — well, at least people in London who read The Guardian — do seem to
like having as many differently flavoured neighbours as possible.
Some super-cool friends of mine were recently being shown round an agreeable school in
Wandsworth. They could have asked about the proximity of sports pitches or the Sats
averages but instead pointed out to the headmistress that there weren’t many black children
in the classrooms. “No, well there wouldn’t be,” she explained, “because there aren’t any
diplomatic families round here.”
Of course, in the face of such nonsense, they’ve decided instead to send their child to the
Al-Qaeda Mormon Franco/Peruvian Fusion School for Lapsed West African Catholics.
On the whole, I quite like multicultural living; certainly, I like what the recent influx of
immigrants has done to the capital’s restaurant scene, but I’m not so sure it works on the
road. Imagine, if you will, an Italian attempting to drive, Naples style, through a small
town in Alabama, or a Buddhist from Bali trying to negotiate the five-way junction at the
Arc de Triomphe, and you start to grasp the problem. In essence, each new British citizen
brings with him his own country ’s rules of the road, which means that all of a sudden the
stew’s got yams in it, and ginger.
Only the other day a middle-aged chap in a pair of ill-fitting Aviator shades pulled
alongside me at the lights in his mildly battered W-registered Vauxhall Corsa. All the
windows were down, and he was playing Blockbuster by the Sweet at full volume while
swigging from a bottle of beer. This may have been a cool look in downtown Ankara, but
in Covent Garden, I have to say, it didn’t really work terribly well.
The look, of course, was no big deal, but the preposterous wheelspinning start as the lights
went green certainly was. You see, apart from young men in Porsche Boxsters, the British
usually drive with a politeness rarely found elsewhere in the world. We tend not to sit in
yellow boxes or tailgate on the motorway. And despite various scaremongering reports,
expressions of road rage in the UK are usually limited to the wagged finger or the furrowed
Suddenly, though, we’ve been joined by people who are used to running the gauntlet of
Sniper’s Alley in Sarajevo, and by Italian exchange students, and those who bought an out-
of-state driving licence in Punjab for 20 rupees. As a result, the simple roundabout — a
peculiarly British invention that works on the principle of courtesy — has become a white-
knuckle ride of fear.
Then there’s the horn. Since the 1950s really, it’s been used in Britain mostly to attract the
attention of friends on the pavement. Now, though, it’s used for all sorts of reasons:
because it’s there and it works, because some Iranian second division football team has
won a match, because of a quashed coup back home, or simply as a pressure valve in traffic
Last week, a swarthy-looking chap in the car behind lent on his hooter for a full two
minutes, simply because I hadn’t driven into a junction marked “keep clear”. And
yesterday I was very nearly T-boned by someone who had sailed through a red light. Why
not? Where he comes from, red lights are seen as pretty, rather than instructive.
On the motorway, you drive for mile after mile behind a car being driven by someone who
passed his test on an ox. He simply has no idea that he’s supposed to pull over — the
situation never cropped up in Bhutan.
I’m not criticising, you understand. I am not a UKIP lunatic and this is not some Daily
Mail rant. I think women should be allowed to wear the burqa at school, and in the
supermarket and in the mosque. All I’m saying here is that it’s not such a good idea to
wear one while going round Hyde Park Corner.
No, wait — I’m not even saying that. Of course you must be allowed to wear whatever you
like while circumnavigating Britain’s busiest junction. But please understand that those of
us who have been driving in Britain for the past 25 years are not necessarily aware that the
person coming the other way has a bag on their head. So give us some time to adapt, and in
the meantime, maybe you could put a sign or something in the back window?
I do think, however, that it might be a good idea for immigration officials to give the new
boys a Highway Code when they arrive, or maybe a series of laminated handy hints that
could be hung with the religious memorabilia and the spicy air freshener from the rear-
view mirror. Stuff like what to do at a red traffic light, how to deal with a yellow box and
why it’s not a very good f****** idea to drive around at two in the f****** morning
blowing your f****** horn.
There’s another issue, too. People from countries only recently introduced to the car have
no idea about the social niceties of what to buy. So they just go out there and buy
whatever’s cheap. This means the roads of London are now littered with horrid old Toyota
Previas and Nissan Glorias that have been imported on dhows from second-hand car lots in
Sharjah. Anything, really, with four seats and a horn.
This brings me on to the Skoda Fabia diesel. Under the dour stewardship of Volkswagen,
we’re told that you can now talk about Skoda without an end-of-the-pier drum roll and
trombone accompaniment. But let’s be honest; you’ve got to live a fairly style-free
existence before you seriously start to consider actually buying one.
At £11,990, the Fabia diesel is a little cheaper than other similarly sized cars in the VW
portfolio, but it’s not particularly good-looking, and even though the vRS model I tested
has off-white inserts in the seats, the interior is dreary and depressing.
Is it fast? Well, when you look at the usual benchmarks, you have to say no. Nought to 60
is dealt with in 9.6sec and the top speed is 126mph. This isn’t bad for a small diesel but in
the big scheme of things, it’s nothing to write home about.
What the figures don’t tell you, though, is just how quickly this little car accelerates in the
midrange. In a petrol car, the power comes in a smooth stream across the rev range, but in
this, all 130 horses seem to arrive at once.
You don’t hang on to the gear, feeling the surge growing in strength. You put your foot
down and the power comes in a huge lump, like a wrecking ball. It’s over as quickly as it
arrived, but that’s okay because you’ve overtaken the car in front with yards to spare.
Study the performance characteristics of this car carefully and you will arrive at an
extraordinary conclusion. It may only be a 1.9 litre diesel hatchback, but round a track it
will blow a supercharged Mini Cooper into the weeds. It is astonishingly fast.
At this point I’d love to tell you that by fitting such a huge oil-burning stove under the
bonnet they’ve sent the handling all to cock. But I’m afraid not. It hangs on well, there’s
lots of feedback through the steering, and, as a bonus I really wasn’t expecting, it rides
nicely too. So you get all the thrills of a genuine hot hatchback, in a well-screwed-together,
comfortable and practical package which, because it’s a diesel, will go from here to
Nebraska on a single tank.
Great, but you’re not interested, are you? You think that for £12,000 there must be
something wrong with it, and you know that telling people at parties you have a Skoda is
like telling them you have an embarrassing discharge.
Britain’s new boys will be less bothered about such things. They’ll buy this car because it’s
cheap, and as a result of that, they’re going to be tearing around Britain’s yellow boxes and
bus lanes in a genuinely very good little car.
Model: Skoda Fabia vRS
Engine type: Four-cylinder, 1896cc turbo diesel
Power: 130bhp @ 4000rpm
Torque: 228 lb ft @ 1900rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Suspension: (front) coil springs, struts, anti-roll bar (rear) coil springs, torsion beam,
Tyres: 205/45 WR16
Fuel/CO2: 55.4mpg (combined) / 138g/km
Acceleration: 0-60mph: 9.6sec
Top speed: 126mph
Verdict: The thrills of a hot hatch in a practical, comfortable and economical package
SLR vs GT
I'm sorry, but one of you has to lose
I think the main reason I enjoy engineering so much is that I simply do not understand how
it works. I know that no matter how much training I received, or how many books I read, I
could not build a suspension bridge. Or a boiler. Or even an Airfix Spitfire.
I am less enthusiastic about art, because I could paint a picture. And I don’t go all gooey
about literature, because I can write a coherent sentence.
You won’t find me waxing lyrical about the qualities of an actor, because I’ve been there,
on a stage, and all you have to do is read out your lines and move your eyebrows up and
down. It’s easy. And so’s the law. You just write what you want to say in English, then add
the word “hereinuntoafter” every so often so the public thinks you’re clever.
I could direct a film, run an estate agent’s office, grow a clematis, cook a lunch for 16, sail
a boat, score a goal and make a rug. But I could not design a DVD player or a motorway
junction. And this is why I stand in open-mouthed admiration when I meet an engineer —
because he can do something that I cannot.
I went recently to some mechanical museum in Manchester where there are many steam
engines turning huge brass and iron wheels. Each piston and cog and ratchet performed the
same function in an identical fashion over and over again, but still I stood, waiting for one
of them to do something a little unusual and different.
Charles Babbage, who designed the world’s first computer in the 19th century, talked
about the “unerring certainty of mechanism”, but this is a concept that leaves me dazed and
When I build something it breaks pretty much immediately. I can’t relight an Aga. I can’t
build any of the children’s toys. I can’t hang a picture, and if I use superglue I end up
fastened to whatever was broken. I have the practical abilities and engineering nous of a
jellyfish. I am what chocolate fireguards talk about when they want a metaphor for
Naturally, then, I still don’t really know how a car works. I realise that you put petrol in the
tank. I know that this makes noise and I know that, somehow, the grrrrr sound is converted
Once, in a bid to understand the complexities of internal combustion, I completely
disassembled the crossflow 1.6 in my old Ford Cortina. It was very dirty in there, and when
I put it all back together again there were several pieces left over including, I think, a
So I still don’t really understand engines, but happily I am able to recognise a good one.
And the best one ever made is the 5.7 litre V10 you can find lurking in the middle of a
Porsche Carrera GT.
God knows what’s going on in the combustion chambers but I can tell you that because it
has a tiny, lightweight clutch, the revs die as fast as they build. So it kind of goes
wawawawa, and that means it sounds just like the V10 in a Formula One car. Of course it
doesn’t go like an F1 car. It’s quite a bit faster, actually, because flat out this truly
extraordinary machine will be doing 205mph.
I have written about the Carrera before but what I am able to offer this morning is a direct
comparison with its only real rival, the McLaren Mercedes SLR. So hold on to your
testosterone chaps. Here we go . . .
In many ways they are remarkably similar. Both cost in excess of £310,000. Both produce
more than 600bhp. Both are made almost entirely from carbon fibre. Both have ceramic
brakes and both have the same kind of top speed. Both accelerate at the same rate, too.
Last week I lined them up at one end of Dunsfold’s enormous runway and as the flag
dropped no one could quite believe their eyes — or their ears. As they cleared the line,
their traction control systems frantically reining in the awesome power, the howl of the
Porsche provided a descant for the bassy, rhythmic beat of the McMerc’s supercharged V8.
It was an epic noise. The sound of the Bible.
After a quarter of a mile there was absolutely nothing in it. Even as I slammed the Porsche
into fifth at 150mph the two cars were still absolutely neck and neck and there they stayed
until we crossed the line doing 180. An examination of some film footage later in the day
revealed the Merc had actually won by a bumper.
But of course, if I’d bothered to put the Porsche’s roof on, thus improving the
aerodynamics, I think it would have been a dead heat.
After the drag race it was time for the big test: stopping from 180mph before we ran out of
runway. The Merc’s brakes initially lack feel, but my God they work like nothing you can
imagine. You can actually feel the G-forces pulling your ears forward as the giant ceramic
discs, aided by an air brake that pops out of the boot lid, haul you to a standstill.
This car can stop from 120mph in less distance than the Highway Code says you should be
able to stop from just 60. So you might imagine that in the face of such ferocity the
Porsche wouldn’t stand a chance. But no. Both pulled up in exactly the same time.
And it was the same story round a circuit. Both went round my improvised but challenging
track in 43.6sec. Both were silver. Both used the same amount of fuel. In 15 years of road
testing I’ve never known two cars do so much so similarly.
And yet there are differences, chief among which is that Robbie Williams has a McLaren
and not a GT.
There’s a very good reason for this. You see, when McLaren was designing the SLR it
went to the nth degree to make it as powerful and as light as was technically possible. And
then along came Mercedes who insisted that the car should be useable every day. So, to the
McLaren engineers’ intense annoyance, on went all sorts of stuff like carpet in the boot and
electronic safety devices. It even has a Robbie-friendly automatic gearbox.
My spies tell me that the two parties had a serious falling out. Apparently they couldn’t
even agree on what the finished product sounded like. The boys from McLaren said it
made the same noise as a Spitfire, while the Mercedes technicians were adamant it was like
Whatever, the SLR is less pure somehow than the Porsche, which was designed from day
one to offer the most intoxicating drive possible. It does. For one lap of a track, on a sunny
day, I’d take the knife-edge Porsche every time.
But as an everyday car the big, comfy, well-equipped Mercedes wins. Apart from its feel-
less brakes it’s just so easy to drive and so undemanding. The Porsche, on the other hand,
isn’t even easy to get off the line. You stall, one time in five.
So now we arrive at the big question. Given that I was a billionaire for whom a £300,000
car was no more painful than a Ford Mondeo, which one would I actually buy? The
difficult but oh-so-rewarding Porsche? Or the La-Z-Boy Mercedes? The rapier or the tank?
I think it’d have to be the Porsche, partly because it’s slightly better looking and partly
because it has an ashtray. Strangely, McLaren Mercedes, an operation part-funded by
tobacco, chooses not to fit one.
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