UNSUNG NOTES GOING FOR A SONG

I have driven a few upmarket cars recently but it’s good to get your feet back on the ground and drive something that most of us could actually afford. Amidst the  doe-eyed automotive temptresses, sporty stallions and plush 4x4s, I had the pleasure of driving a Nissan Note for the first time – a little ray of cheap and cheerfulness on what started as a rainy day and then got better. (By the way, when I say “cheap”, I don’t mean “cheap and nasty”). Regardless of size, price and speed, I always look forward to driving a model of car for the first time. In addition, simple comfort, practicality and value for money impress me as much as anything else.

Put it this way – the world needs unsung heroes to keep it ticking along, like the postman, milkman, the kids’ sports coach, teachers and nurses all getting on with their jobs quietly and reliably and making life far better and easier for you and me. The car world is full of such unassuming characters, slaving away and serving their masters reliably and without complaining. OK, they may not be glamorous or do the job with much pizzazz but then pizzazz wasn’t on the spec when you bought the car so you knew not to expect any. And, if it had been, you would have paid a lot more for it.

The Nissan Note falls into this unsung category. It is a car that wears sensible knickers, has never been on a Club 18-30 holiday nor even tasted an alcopop. And yes, before you all think I am in La-La Land, I do know that it is being discontinued! But please bear with. If you are on a tight budget and drawing up a short list of potential small car (or even family car) purchases, the Note may have slipped through the net. Buying a discontinued car might not be everyone’s cup of tea, so why should you consider it? Probably, because you can get quite a lot for your hard-earned dough. Fancy a brand-new, British-built small family car loaded with satnav, climate and cruise control, Bluetooth, rain sensing wipers, alloy wheels and that all-important DAB radio (for listening to the cricket) all for around £10 or £11k (more about the price later)? In addition, despite being discontinued, the Note still looks fresh and modern. And you get all this from a mainstream manufacturer with a reputation for reliability. OK, “small family car” may be a bit of a stretch (unless you have a small family) but interior space is one of the Note’s aces; it’s like a mini-MPV complete with a higher than average seating position and good visibility. Although it is only slightly bigger than Polo- and Fiesta- sized superminis, it has oodles of rear legroom and a boot which is bigger than a Ford Focus’s. Plus, the rear seat slides forward to create even more space for all the family’s paraphernalia – provided the kids have short legs.

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Nissan Note: looks OK doesn’t it? If you want cheap, no nonsense transport, would you argue?

So what’s it like to drive? Well, let’s not get carried away here, this is a good car not a great car. About three weeks ago, I delivered a newly-registered Note from West London to Swindon, a distance of about 80 miles. This was a higher spec Note Acenta Premium with all the aforementioned toys but with the budget engine option – a 1.2 litre petrol motor (80hp) with no turbo- or supercharger magic. In addition to the spacious interior, two positive things struck me about the Note. Firstly, the base cushion of the driver’s seat was particularly comfortable because it felt slightly softer than the norm. Is it me or are most car seats a little on the firm side? Maybe I should exercise less and gain a bit of padding. Secondly, it had smart and beautifully big, clear and crisply lit instruments – way better than a lot of much more expensive cars. The instrument cluster also looked bang up to date thanks to a swanky line of soft blue mood lighting following the contours along the top of the dials (this does dim when you put the lights on which is a good thing). So maybe there is a bit of pizzazz after all, although the rest of the interior interior is more functional (that’s a euphemism for a bit ordinary but inoffensive although the heating controls laid out in a circular arrangement are a bit naff).

Now to the not so good points (I won’t call them bad points). The Note is a bit soft and wobbly around the bends, so the Note would not strike a chord with keen drivers because it could not be pushed through corners with much verve (or even pizzazz). Not quite man and Note in perfect harmony. On the flip side, the ride is reasonable – better than the larger and bumpier Nissan Juke. The 1.2 engine is probably the weakest point. On the motorway, it cruises along happily and quietly once you have reached 70mph although road noise is a bit intrusive. However, reaching that cruising speed will take a while and motorway inclines may require you to drop a cog (a five speed manual box, by the way). On A roads, the Note bowls along nicely at 50 or 60mph but overtaking is probably out of the question unless you’re behind a tractor, milk float, James May or a pedestrian.

But fear not – if you otherwise like the sound of the Note, other engines are available. I would have been interested to try the 1.2 supercharged petrol engine (98hp). Intriguing. Also on offer is the ubiquitous Renault 1.5 turbo diesel engine in 90hp form. This latter power plant provides sterling service in the likes of the Renault Captur so would be a safe and frugal bet in the Note. However, if all you want is no-nonsense, reasonably comfortable transport to get you from A to B before the end of next week, then the normal 1.2 petrol engine may be good enough for you. Incidentally, it did just over 50 mpg on my 80 mile trip from London to Swindon.

Now back to the price. If you look on the used car (“Cared4”!?) section of the Nissan UK website, you will find plenty of the following all with delivery miles only:-

  • 1.2 (80hp) petrol Acenta Premium for between £9495 and £10495;
  • 1.5 diesel Acenta Premium for between £9995 and £11495;
  • 1.2 supercharged (98hp) petrol Acenta Premium for between £10,995 and £12995 (most of these are automatics).

Hopefully that’s music to your ears.

Colin

WEEKLY CAR DIARY – POSH STUFF & SOUTHEND WITHOUT THE SEA

Quite busy this week so I earned a few pennies. You couldn’t earn a living doing this driving work because it is very poorly paid. I think of it as a pleasant pastime with the bonus of a bit of pin money. Enough for the weekly gruel ration and to fund my wife’s turmeric habit. This golden spice is the latest superfood discovery in our household. Half a teaspoonful in porridge (I haven’t plucked up enough courage to try it myself yet) apparently ensures eternal life and cures every form of illness known to humankind, except jaundice. Well, it may cure jaundice but since turmeric turns you yellow, it is difficult to tell. Anyway, here’s what I drove this week:-

Monday: Jaguar XE 2.0d 180 R-Sport manual and Land Rover Discovery Sport TD4 180 HSE auto, Rockingham, Northamptonshire to Leicester

Tuesday: Vauxhall Vivaro van, Bourne End, Buckinghamshire to Aldershot, Surrey; Peugeot Expert van (2012), Aldershot to Blackbushe Airport, Surrey

Thursday: Bentley Mulsanne Speed (2015), Leicester to Southend-on-Sea, Essex

Friday: Mercedes E220d AMG Line auto, Nottingham to Leicester

So, mostly quite posh fare this week apart from the two vans on Tuesday, although the Vivaro (a Renault Trafic with a Vauxhall badge) is a lovely van to drive.

You may have noticed I delivered cars to Rockingham twice last week and collected a couple from there on Monday. That’s because horse trials were held on Rockingham Castle estate last weekend (scene of one of my best driving days out!). Apparently, the atmosphere at the trials was tense as five horses were found guilty and two were acquitted. One horse was sentenced to life imprisonment. That’s a lot of porridge and, if he adds turmeric, a very long time. Daylight Robbery is still protesting his innocence but with a name like that, I think he’s flogging a dead …. Sorry, think I better stop there.

Driving the Jaguar XE back from Rockingham confirmed a niggle about this car that I had when I drove another manual example last year – the whole experience of changing gear leaves a little to be desired. The gear change itself is not the slickest, I don’t find the flat-topped, brushed aluminium gear knob very tactile (maybe that’s just me) and the slightly high, fixed centre armrest under your elbow doesn’t leave your arm in a totally natural position for changing gear manually. Maybe they forgot about the manual version when designing the armrest because it would not be an issue in an automatic (by all accounts, the eight speed automatic available in the XE is very good). Apart from that niggle, the XE is great. You really feel a part of the car, the steering is sharp and precise, it rides well and there is plenty of punch from the 180hp diesel engine.

Taking a Bentley on a trip to the seaside on one of the hottest day of the year sounded nice and indeed, until I got to within six miles of my destination, it was. However, my plans to have a quick peek at the sea en route to the train station after delivering the car were scuppered by a serious incident on the main route into Southend-on-Sea. I sat stationary on the A127 dual carriageway for quite a while as emergency vehicles picked their way between the two lanes of traffic. Eventually, a policeman wandered along (on foot) and started getting the cars and vans just behind me to turn around and drive the wrong way down an entry slip road. Then it was my turn. So, there I was coaxing the 5.6 metre, 2.7 ton, £200k+ leviathan round 180 degrees across two narrowish lanes of the A127 under the watchful eye of the policeman and several of my fellow motorists sitting in Golfs, Clios and Transit vans. Half of them were probably thinking “Damn fine motor car. Best of British”. The other half: “Filthy rich b*****d” or worse. I wanted to wind down the window and assure everyone that the car wasn’t mine. However, that may not have been a terribly good idea in front of a policeman. Could have led to an awkward situation (although I don’t think I look like a car thief but then again, I am a bit biased).

It took me well over an hour to do the last six miles and I had a train to catch, so no glimpse of the sea. The Mulsanne Speed I drove last year had an all-black interior. Thursday’s car had lots of off-white leather to lighten the mood and, in my view, looked much better for it. In fact, the almost white leather together with all the very shiny chrome embellishments gave the interior a nautical feel, like the interior of a super yacht. The fact that the Mulsanne is the size of a pocket battleship and its long bonnet noses majestically ahead of you like the bows of said battleship (complete with winged Bentley figurehead) furthers the nautical impression, so at least I had some sort of maritime experience. If you want to read more about the Mulsanne Speed (and a visit to Middle Earth) check out my epic two-part post here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).

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The interior of the Bentley. Not a bad place to be.

Colin

VERSATILE SPINACH WITH CHILLI PESTO NEW POTATOES

We have just discovered chilli pesto – entirely by accident. Thought we had picked up a jar of the usual red pesto but it turned out to be the chilli variety and it’s rather nice (we got Aldi”s version). I have combined new potatoes and spinach before but thought I would try adding the pesto as well. Give it a whirl and try serving with grilled fish or meat. It’s quick, dead easy and there’s no need for a complicated sauce because the pesto and spinach potatoes do the job for you.

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Served with grilled salmon and steamed carrots and mange tout. Easy!

Here’s what you do. I have given a guide to quantities but you decide depending on how many mouths you are feeding:-

  • New potatoes – enough for all those mouths. They can be kept whole if small enough or cut to uniformly sized chunks
  • Baby spinach, washed. A handful for each person (wash your hands first please). It may look a lot but it does reduce down
  • Chilli pesto – a good heaped teaspoonful per person
  • Butter – as much or as little as you like (but please have some)
  • Black pepper

Boil the new potatoes until tender and while that is going on, chop the spinach. When cooked, drain the potatoes (keep them in the pan, don’t drain using a colander). Don’t worry about draining every last drop of water. Quickly throw in the spinach and butter, put the lid on and leave to steam for a minute or so (that’s why it is not critical to drain every last drop of water). Add the pesto and mix the whole lot so the potatoes are coated. You can do this over a very low light but not for long. Add black pepper if you wish and serve.

OTHER STUFF TO DO WITH SPINACH

A bag of washed baby spinach is a handy  thing to have around. We usually have one on the go in the fridge because it’s so versatile. I am however thinking of suing the makers of Popeye because I have eaten quite a bit of the stuff but, as I think I mentioned in a previous post, my arms are still like Olive Oyl’s. Spinach is rich in iron so if you start eating it regularly you can give up the Mackesons stout. Did you know, up until the 1980’s, pregnant and new mothers in the UK were advised to drink stout to boost their iron levels? I remember my mum drinking it after my baby brother was born. That may have been because of the shock though.

Anyway, here are a few things you can do with spinach (baby spinach is best):-

  • As a vegetable in its own right. Frankly, not my favourite way of consuming spinach but can be livened up with butter, lemon juice and/or garlic or cream and nutmeg.
  • Chop and add it to casseroles (or even gravy!). Can’t really taste it so it’s a good way of getting fresh vegetables into reluctant children or carnivores.
  • Finely chop it and add to a cheese sauce to make posh looking pasta dishes
  • Add to homemade tomato sauce and make more pasta dishes
  • Use as a salad leaf
  • Put in your sandwiches, e.g tuna mayonnaise, coronation chicken (not Marmite or jam, that would be weird)

Colin