Bit late with this week’s diary because we have been to visit family in Sevenoaks in Kent, a county in the south east of England known as the Garden of England. Fittingly, we had far too much good food. Fantastic. An early morning Sunday walk through Knole Park made us feel good about ourselves – and also made room for a delicious lunch. Knole Park surrounds Knole House, one of the largest stately homes in England. The building of this impressive pile was kicked off by an Archbishop of Canterbury in 1456 and bits and pieces were added over the centuries. Knole is Kent’s last remaining medieval deer park, so if you want to know what medieval deer look like, see the pics. The park was beautiful in the watery winter sun and the deer were out in force. The whole place is owned by the National Trust but you can enjoy the parkland for free. We didn’t have time to go around the house but I am told that you can only access a limited part of it. That includes the impressive Gatehouse Tower from which you get spectacular panoramic views. We actually missed a trick there because climbing the steep spiral staircase to the top of the tower would have made even more room for dessert at lunchtime (although to be fair, the three helpings I had were probably sufficient).

Knole House
Knole House with the Gateway Tower in the centre. And below green parkland, blue sky, rusty trees and lots of deer.


Car-wise, this past week was not quite as interesting as the previous week but that’s not to say the Audi A3 and the Mercedes C-class are not fine cars. In fact, I particularly liked the Audi, as good to drive as the Audi A1 but a bit bigger:-

Monday: Audi A3 S Line 1.5TFSI (150hp), Leicester to Kibworth Harcourt, Leicestershire

Wednesday: Seat Ibiza 1.4 (2006) chase car, Leicester to Bicester, Oxfordshire

Friday: Mercedes C220D AMG Line auto, Nottingham to Bournemouth

I’m actually going to jump back to the previous week because I am keen to tell you about a new budget car brand I have discovered: Vauxhall (or Opel if you live outside the UK). I hadn’t realised what good value they are. I knew the latest Astra was a good car but en route from Southampton to Old Sarum, I discovered that the new Insignia Grand Sport is a decent car too. Wider and lower than the old Insignia and very handsome with it, the new model (sporting a grand title to distinguish it from its predecessor) is also lighter and cheaper. Solid feeling, quiet and relaxing to drive with a modern interior that could hold its own against most of the obvious opposition, it’s a traditional, full-size family car (which may be a drawback because everyone wants SUVs or smaller cars with premium badges these days).

The handsome Insignia Grand Sport safely delivered to Old Sarum, virtually in the shadow of the Iron Age hill fort described in my last post.

But if you have a family to transport and don’t care two hoots about fashion accessories or badges, an Insignia Grand Sport could be yours for just £17635. That’ll come with plenty of kit and what looks like a perky a 1.5 turbo petrol engine with 140 horses. In the UK, you’ll pay £1.8k more for a Mondeo and £4k more for the Optima from budget stalwart, Kia! And bizarrely, you will pay £2.5k more for the cheapest and smaller Ford Focus (yes, really – the cheapest Focus in the UK is £20135 which is more than the entry-level version of its big brother, the Mondeo).

I delivered a 110hp 1.6 diesel Insignia Grand Sport to Old Sarum and it did the job just fine. Funnily enough, at 70mph on the motorway it was just as fast as a Lamborghini Aventador doing 70mph. So, if you want a version of the new Insignia that does 70 miles to the gallon, you will have to part with £19,075 but that’s still less than the cheapest Mondeo which is petrol powered (one of those little one litre wonders but may be a bit out of its depth in a Mondeo??).

And finally, to confirm Vauxhall’s budget credentials, there’s a huge £3.6k difference between the cheapest Vauxhall/Opel Astra and the basement Ford Focus in the UK.




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.

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.